Did you ever wonder about those four strange magnets, a yellow and green leaf, an orange and yellow leaf, a blue and white clover, or a yellow and green butterfly, sometimes conspicuously attached to the front and rear of cars all over Japan? I was really hoping for a conspiracy, but in fact they are used to identify drivers with special needs to other drivers. These drivers must display them or face fines and lose points from their license.
The green and yellow leaf design identifies novice drivers, and its fresh green leaves are supposed to symbolize youth. If you use a Japanese driver’s license, you may also have had to put that “beginner” mark on your vehicle. This mark generally identifies drivers with less than one year experience behind the wheel, but it is also required for most foreign drivers who convert their licenses after coming to Japan.
Try to think of it as a “novice Japan driver” mark, rather than a “beginner” mark, because choosing to spare yourself the indignity of displaying your “beginner” status by leaving the mark off will cost you.
If cited for failure to display a required mark, 1 point will be deducted from your driver’s license, and you will pay a 14,000+ fine.
The orange and yellow leaf design used to identify elderly drivers, and appears to symbolize seniors in the autumn of their life. It may seem a bit macabre to choose a dying leaf to represent seniors, and Japan`s elderly population shares that sentiment.
Usage of this mark was previously required, but public outcry forced the government to back down, and now the mark is voluntary, but encouraged, for drivers over 70 years of age.
A new design replaced the unpopular dead leaf version.
The new design is shaped like a clover, brightly colored in lime green, green, yellow, and red. The clover is drawn around the English letter S in the center. This either stands for senior, or superman; I lean towards the latter.
Interestingly, the new mark resembles the wildcard from the game Uno. At the end of this year that design will become the official one and its use once again will be required.
Either mark seems a bit redundant, as elderly drivers are easily spotted by their habit of driving well below the speed limit. Again, the mark is voluntary, but encouraged, for drivers over 70 years of age.
A mark you might be less familiar with is the blue and white clover. This mark identifies a driver with a physical disability. I won’t pretend to know why a clover was chosen for this design, or why they decided against the wheelchair design used almost everywhere else in the world.
In the US, a shamrock symbolizes good luck and would be a strange choice for a driver suffering from a disability. This mark is also voluntary, but its use is encouraged for the physically disabled who drive regular vehicles.
Unlike other countries, this mark is not required to utilize disabled parking areas, and so anyone can buy one, and they are available in stores next to other marks if you want to pick one up.
The least common of these marks is the green and yellow butterfly indentifying hearing impaired drivers. A driver who is unable to hear a 90 decibel car horn at a distance of 10 meters with both ears is required to display this mark on their car. Once you know what it means, it would be pretty easy to decide the wings are actually ears, but it is in fact a butterfly.
The design is a joke based on something like a homophone, or a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. The word for hearing in Japanese is Chyoukaku, and the word for butterfly is chyou. That is how a picture of a butterfly was chosen to symbolize hearing impaired drivers; cute, right?
These marks protect vulnerable or inexperienced drivers on the road, and I suppose us from them as well. When you encounter a vehicle bearing one of these special there are some things to keep in mind. Even if the dying leaf in front of you is driving too slowly, you may not pass too close or cut off a vehicle bearing one of these marks except to avoid a danger or hazard. If you do you will be cited by the police, pay a minimum fine of 6,000+, and lose 1 point from your license.
This is not a particularly steep fine, but the police will additionally cite you for passing too closely, etc as well. These multiple citations can put you in danger of getting your license suspended, which occurs automatically when you accrue 6 points against your driving record.
As I said, I was really hoping for a conspiracy to explain these magnets, but even if the truth is less interesting, you can still use it to amaze your friends, impress your family when they come to visit, and answer at least one question correctly if you ever take the driver’s license test in Japan. If you are interested exploring a little further, you can see a collection of Japanese street signs and their meanings, at www.japandriverslicense.com.