Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 53 (photostories)


Name Plate Design of Japanese Express Trains


Fuji and Sakura

In 1912, the Japanese Government Railways (JGR) inaugurated a luxurious express service, composed of 1st and 2nd class carriages only, between Tokyo and Shimonoseki, to establish a quick link to Korea, Northeast China, and Europe via Siberia. In 1923, the JGR started a cheaper version of this service composed mainly of 3rd class carriages. The both trains were so popular that the JGR decided in 1929 to give a hypocoristic name to them, offering a prize for the best ideas. From numerous public responses, Fuji was chosen for the luxurious one and Sakura (cherry blossom) for the modest one. Both services were suspended during WWII. After the war, the nicknames Fuji and Sakura were used for limited express services between Tokyo and main cities in Kyushu.
Photo: Fuji observation car deck (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Name plate of Fuji (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Name plate of Sakura (digital reproduction from photograph)

Tsubame, Heiwa, and Hato

In 1930, the JGR started a rapid daytime express service between Tokyo and Kobe, covering 590 km in 8 h 20 min. Nicknamed Tsubame (swallow), it was regarded as the best train in Japan, but was suspended in 1943 as the war situation worsened. In 1949, Japanese National Railways (reorganized from JGR as a public corporation) restarted a limited express service between Tokyo and Osaka. This train was first nicknamed Heiwa (peace), but soon renamed Tsubame. In 1950, the JNR started a second limited express service named Hato (pigeon) for the same route. Hauled by electric and steam locomotives, both trains covered 550 km in 8 hours. In 1951, the completion of electrification of Tokaido main line enabled to cut journey time to 7 h 30 min. In 1960, modern electric railcars replaced conventional carriages for both services, and journey time was shortened to 6 h 30 min. In 1964, both services were terminated when Tokaido Shinkansen was opened.
Photo: Observation deck of Tsubame (The Railway Museum)
Photo: View of Heiwa limited express from end of train (operated from October 1958 to July 1959) (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Name plate of Tsubame
Photo: Name plate of Hato
Photo: Name plate of Heiwa
* The name plate images for Tsubame, Heiwa and Hato are digital reproductions from photographs.


Asakaze (morning breeze) limited express sleeper service connecting Tokyo and Hakata (Fukuoka) in Kyushu was inaugurated in 1956. In 1958, newly designed Series 20 carriages were introduced with fully air-conditioned interior and vivid navy blue livery, boasting high ride comfort. It was often called ‘the moving hotel’ and also ‘blue train’, imitating famous luxury trains in France and South Africa. It became so popular that the JNR started several sister express trains, such as Mizuho (vigorous rice plant), Fuji and Sakura, between Tokyo and main cities in Kyushu. Asakaze and her sister services continued even after the extension of Shinkansen to Hakata (1975), due to sharp decline of rail passengers caused by the growth of air traffic, Asakaze was terminated in 2005, and all other sleeper trains for Kyushu were terminated by March 2009.
Photo: EF66 heading Asakaze limited express at Yokohama Station (Kotsushimbunsha)
Photo: Name plate of Asakaze (The Railway Museum)


Inaugurated in 1958 between Tokyo and Osaka, Kodama (echo) was the first limited express using electric multiple unit (EMU) called Series 151 (later renamed Series 181). Distributed motive power along the whole length of train set produced much higher output than conventional locomotive-hauled trains, cutting journey time from 7h 30 min to 6 h 30 min and enabling a return journey on the same day using the same train set. The success of Kodama led to the introduction of Series 151 to Tsubame and Hato services in 1960, followed by numerous other EMU express services on JNR’s electrified trunk lines. The lead and rear cars of Series 151 carried a large body mounted nameplate in front, but in later series of EMU express trains, it was changed to automatic rewinding name plates to avoid complicated and dangerous manual works to replace the plates.
* The name plate image for Kodama is a digital reproduction from photograph
Photo: Kodama limited express EMU (The Railway Museum)

Hatsukari, Hakutsuru, and Yuzuru

In 1958, JNR inaugurated a limited express service from Tokyo (Ueno) to Aomori (ferry port on the northern tip of Honshu), covering 630 km in just 12 hours. Nicknamed Hatsukari (first wild geese seen in the year), it was the first limited express serving regions north of Tokyo that was regarded as less developed area. In 1960, conventional carriages were replaced by newly designed diesel railcars called Series Kiha 80, cutting the journey time to 10 h 25 min. From Tokyo to Sendai, the train took slightly longer but flatter coastal root via Joban Line. Hatsukari was used as the fastest link to Hokkaido, until airlines became cheaper and popular. In 1964, Hakutsuru (white crane) was introduced as the first sleeper limited express serving north of Tokyo to Aomori. Unlike Hatsukari, it took inland root to Sendai via Tohoku main line, because electrification made it possible to run faster trains on the steeply graded tracks. In 1965, another sleeper express nicknamed Yuzuru (crane flying in evening sky) was inaugurated between Tokyo and Aomori, using the Joban Line. In 1968, when the electrification and double-tracking of Tohoku main line were completed, Hatsukari and Hakutsuru services were changed from locomotive-hauled carriages to electric railcars, using Series 583 EMUs with specially designed seats convertible to beds at night. In 1982, after the opening of Tohoku Shinkansen to Morioka, the nickname Hatsukari was took over by local limited express services between Morioka and Aomori, and finally disappeared in 2002, when Tohoku Shinkansen was extended to Hachinohe. Yuzuru and Hakutsuru night services were terminated in 1993 and 2002, respectively
Photo: JNR President Shinji Sogo inaugurating Hatsukari at Tokyo’s Ueno Station on 10 October 1958 (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Lead car of Series Kiha 80 DMU (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Name plate of Yuzuru (The Railway Museum)
Photo: Name plate of Hatsukari (digital reproduction from photograph)
Photo: Name plate for Hakutsuru sleeper limited express (Original designdrawing by Y Kuroiwa, courtesyof Presse Eisenbahn)

Series Kiha 82 diesel express Services

Japan’s economy and society almost completely recovered from war damages by 1955, and the so-called high-growth period started in the early 1960s. In 1961, JNR introduced a completely new timetable, and inaugurated a nationwide network of limited express services using Series Kiha 82 DMU, an improved version of Kiha 80. Kiha 82 train set was usually composed of 6 cars (4 third-class, 1 second-class and 1 dining cars). In some cases two sets were coupled on busy main lines and decoupled at a junction for different destinations. All end cars had a door in front to enable passengers and train crew to move from one set to another. Train names were shown in a window mounted on the door, giving a very modest impression compared with Series 151 (181) EMU and Series 80 DMU. The start of nationwide limited express bought a big variety in train names, including Ozora (open blue sky) in Hokkaido, Tsubasa (wing) in northern Honshu, Hakucho (swan) in northern and central Honshu along the Sea-of-Japan coast, Matsukaze (wind among pine trees), Kamome (seagull) in West Honshu and Kyushu, etc.
Photo: Series Kiha 82 Matsukaze limited express running on San’in main line (H Narasaki)
Photo: Osaka-bound Hakucho and Tokyo (Ueno) bound Tsubasa limited express trains, both leaving Akita Station at 0810 hours (The Railway Museum)
* The name plate images for Ozora, Tsubasa, Hakucho, Matsukaze and Kamome are digital reproductions from photographs.

Azusa limited express with automatic rewinding name plate

Automatic rewinding train nameplate was introduced in the late 1960’s, when the number of limited expresses was increased dramatically. As a result of the increase, it became very inconvenient to have to replace the train name plates manually when the train had to be turned back under a different name. Automatic rewinding train name plate was the solution to this problem. With several different train names imprinted on a long, rolled-up film, the replacement procedure became simplified, and safer for workers. The photographs show the front and the back mechanism of automatic rewinding nameplate for Azusa.
Photo: Azusa limited express name plate (front) (The Railway Museum)
Photo: The back of the name plate showing the rewinding system (The Railway Museum)

Super Hitachi limited express

Beginning in the late 1980’s, name plates using LED were introduced. LED type name plates has advantages over conventional non-LED nameplates, in that LED does not require as much maintenance, and it is possible to show important information such as train departure time. This photograph shows the LED type name plate for series 651 Super Hitachi limited express connecting Ueno in central Tokyo and Sendai in northeast Japan
Photo: Series 651 Super Hitachi with LED type nameplate (The Railway Museum)

Irodori special express

Irodori special express with LCD nameplate. LCD nameplate was first used in 2007, on one of the Joyful Train, which is a special set of trains operated solely on the purpose of serving tourists. This is the newest type of nameplate as of 2009 August.
Photo: Irodori Series 485 N201 train set with LCD name plate
(T. Honda)