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The Commuting Character Challenge

Learn these kanji to make sure you don't hop on the special-limited-rapid-express train when you're really going for the local train.

By 3 min read

From the moment a foreign commuter enters a train station, they are bombarded by unexplained kanji. At first, it can be tempting to simply ignore it, after all you can catch your train without understanding more than one or two. Instead, it is worth resisting that urge. By carefully looking at the kanji in the station, learners soon discover that there is a lot of useful information that is easily missed hidden in all the squiggles.

Even something as simple as checking the schedule for the next train involves a lot of these kanji. While the English-derived word スケジュール is becoming more common, most of the time the train schedule will be written as the far more difficult 時刻表(じこくひょう).

This 時刻表じこくひょう・Timetable is also further divided into 平日(へいじつ) (weekday) and 週末(しゅうまつ) (weekend) sections. However, it is not uncommon to see 週末 written as 土曜 (どよう)日曜(にちよう)休日 (きゅうじつ) (Saturday, Sunday, Holidays). Don’t be confused if the kanji for 時刻表 is paired with the word 発車(はっしゃ) as this simply refers to the departure schedule and has the same meaning.

Of course 発車はっしゃ・Departure is not the only tricky thing that can be found on schedules. To make things more complicated, the schedule will occasionally be divided in half with the times for trains traveling in each direction written alongside each other. It is not uncommon for people to find themselves waiting for much longer than expected because they looked at the timetable for the wrong direction. To avoid this confusion, a useful kanji to look for is 方面 (ほうめん) which tells you the direction the train is going.

Another kanji that tells the commuter which direction the train is going in is ()き. Although it looks like the kanji for ‘go’ (行く), at most train stations you will see this kanji being used slightly differently. When it appears at the end of a station name, it has the reading ゆき and means ‘bound for’. This can be especially useful in Osaka as the JR trains divert at Shin-Imamiya station into 難波行(なんばこう)き (Namba-bound) and the loop line 環状線 (かんじょうせん) trains.

As well as being divided by destination, trains are further divided by speed.

  • 普通4(ふつう) ー Ordinary
  • 準急(じゅんきゅう) ー Semi Express
  • 急行(きゅうこう) ー High Speed
  • 特急(とっきゅう) ー Special Express
  • 新幹線(しんかんせん) ー Bullet Train

Most of the time the faster trains have fewer stops, so be careful not to ride past your station.

You can, of course, ride past your station and come back on yourself to save time. However, be careful not to mention this to the station staff as this is called ()() in Japanese and requires an extra fee. While 乗り越し is an example of useless Japanese bureaucracy, the kanji for 乗り越し is useful. You will often see these characters paired with 精算機(せいさんき) (fare adjustment machine) to indicate the machine you should put money into if you brought a cheaper ticket than necessary.

Now that you know which train to catch, it is worth checking that you are on the right platform. In Japan, trains are divided into track numbers by the kanji 番線(ばんせん). So, track number three would be 3番線.

Interestingly, this ordering doesn’t stop at the platforms. If you look closely at the door, you will see that the carriage you are in is written there. For example 3号車(ごうしゃ) 4番ドア means that you are in the 3rd carriage, near the fourth door. Using these numbers you can text your exact location to someone.

These are just some of the many kanji to look out for at the train station. The best part is that kanji like 行, 方, 通, 特, 乗 are really useful characters that appear in many words, so simply by riding the train to work every day you can quickly improve your Japanese. Combining your daily activities with Japanese practice is the quickest way to master the language. Happy travels and studies everyone!

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  • Mikey says:

    the use of ‘yuki’ as ‘bound for’ threw me for so long – I kept wondering why they were talking about snow all year round ha ha

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