Tokyo Nightlife Vans Evading Bans Inspire New Regulations

Tokyo Nightlife Vans Evading Bans Inspire New Regulations

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A mobile billboard truck (ad truck) drives through Tokyo.
Mobile billboards, many advertising nightlife businesses, loudly circle the streets of Tokyo. Now the government is cracking down.

Step out into the sordid streets of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s most famous red light district, and you’ll be greeted with an overwhelming degree of stimuli. LED and neon-lit signs stack up on top of each other, advertising eateries, drinking holes, and hostess clubs.

“Catches” stalk the streets, attempting to woo passerby into izakaya, karaoke, or cabarets, while “scouts” try and attract more workers (usually young women). From atop Hotel Gracery, the giant head of Godzilla lets out an occasional roar.

Loudest of all, however, are the “mobile billboards”. These are giant trucks bearing illuminated advertisements blare out commercial messages for idol bands, services, and – semi-legally – the local world of the nightlife “water trade.”

Semi-legally is the operative phrase here. City officials have deemed these often incredibly loud sound trucks a menace. Indeed, many operate in a grey zone within the Tokyo ordinances for outdoor advertisements.

Survival amidst ambiguity

All such mobile billboards (also known as “ad trucks”) with Tokyo license plates must submit their designs for approval from the Tokyo Outdoor Advertising Association. (東京屋外広告協会.) Said association exists in order to maintain a Tokyo landscape where these ads won’t bother or offend the citizenry.

The somewhat-tortured English tagline on the association’s official website reads “Harmony with a landscape of Tokyo. Think about life.” According to Tokyo officials, advertisements on mobile billboards for sex-industry adjacent businesses don’t quite fit their vision for that landscape.

The industry in question, consisting of host clubs, cabarets, snack bars, “soaplands,” and beyond, has had to be innovative to survive within Japan’s ambiguous laws regarding nightlife and sex work. And with advertising, they’ve worked around the ordinances by bringing in mobile billboards from out-of-prefecture.


It’s a simple enough fix. And one the Tokyo government now intends to end.

Boarding Up the Mobile Billboard Business

Non-Tokyo license plates on cacophonous ad trucks in places like Kabukicho are now a common sight. In February, Tokyo undertook a brief fact-finding investigation, hoping to track just how many trucks have been skirting around prefectural inspection. The study took place in the nightlife districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

The city found that all 70 mobile billboards observed had out-of-prefecture plates. Some included those from Yokohama, Fukushima, and Nagoya. 70% of these were advertising fuzoku businesses (風俗営業), which include clubs where hosts drink with guests, as well as sex businesses like soaplands.

The prefectural government is now undertaking steps to create new regulations regarding the inspection of such ad trucks. Additionally, the government intends to cooperate with neighboring prefectures like Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa to increase regulation effectiveness.

The goal is to create more wide-reaching standards that go beyond the relatively narrow borders of the Tokyo metropolitan prefecture. If the updated regulations prove effectual, the streets of Kabukicho may become at least a little quieter.

A mobile billboard truck advertising a new album by idol group HKT48. Source: Jojimuke, Wiki.

Mobile Billboards: A Japanese Tradition?

The use of automobiles for advertorial purposes has a surprisingly long history in Japan. The first well-known example was an inventive little effort by Kirin Beer. The so-called “Number One Car,” debuting in 1909 (the 42nd year of the Meiji era), was decked out to look like a bottle of Kirin lager.

The bottle journeyed far and wide in Japan, inspiring people to drink. Alas, the beloved beer car was destroyed in the horrific 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Its remains can still be seen at the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum.

A Kirin beer car from 1909, designed to resemble a bottle of beer. This was an early precursor to the modern mobile billboard.
The Kirin Beer “Number One Car,” an early precursor to the modern mobile billboard.

Kirin constructed their ad car when automobiles were still a rare sight in Japan. Those who viewed it with curiosity could little have imagined how bright and deafeningly loud its successors would become, more than a century later. Mobile billboards (広告宣伝車, kokoku senden-sha) aren’t just noisy; they’re repetitively so, as they circle the same blocks time and again, attempting to reach the masses moving through the nightlife districts.

The issue goes beyond advertisements for the sex industry. Agencies use similar trucks for any number of upcoming events; its believed that the trucks are effective at generating “recency results” just before shows, concerts, CD launches, and more. Perhaps most notorious of all are the political campaign trucks, which drive through neighborhoods loudly announcing slogans. Right-wing groups (uyoku dantai) are also known for using similar sound trucks, theirs painted all in black, to blast nationalist talking points on city street corners.

If the prefecture is cracking down on one form of advertisement pollution, it might do them well to investigate the public perception of other forms as well. “Harmony with a landscape of Tokyo” doesn’t end at the borders of Kabukicho.

Kabukicho Club Shut Down Over Illegal Porn Star Drinking


(2023/04/08.) キャバクラなど宣伝の「広告トラック」、東京都が規制強化…都外ナンバーも審査へ. 読売新聞オンライン


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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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