marky star

Tokyo Train Line Names

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on December 12, 2013 at 5:00 am

Tokyo Train Line Names

The Tokyo train system is probably the best in the world. This may not even be a complete map (or at least the JR Lines don't seem to be labeled indivdually....)

The Tokyo train system is probably the best in the world.
This may not even be a complete map (or at least the JR Lines don’t seem to be labeled indivdually….)

2012 is nearing its end and my work and private life are getting busier and busier. I apologize for the drop in the frequency of posts, but a brother’s gotta pay the bills. Also, it’s getting colder and Mrs. JapanThis! needs some warming up in bed. Heaters in Tōkyō don’t really cut it at night, if you know what I mean. But the fact of the matter is that I have no time for anything right now. So today I picked a topic that was kind of easy[i].

Most of the train lines in Tōkyō have names based on whatever major area they originated/terminated – or at least stopped at. For example, the Marunouchi Line’s most important stations were in the former Marunouchi (Daimyō Alley) and the Yamanote Line connected centers of the “new Yamanote.[ii]”  Some of the more ambitious, longer train lines have names that describe their start/stop points in general terms. This type of name usually reflects the tendency of the Japanese language to make new matches out of existing kanji.

Most of these names are self-evident to the Japanese, especially people who live and/or work in and around Tōkyō. But many of these names may be slightly mysterious to foreigners.

Let’s take a look at these train line names, shall we?

Oh sorry, you must be this tall to get on this ride:

sen line

That kanji is generally tacked on to every train line, so I’ll leave it out of the explanations below. No sense in beating a dead horse.

OK, let’s dig in!!!!


Nanboku Sen (North-South Line)

nan south
hoku north

This is one of the easiest names that I’m going to present today.
This train literally runs from the south to the north – it runs from
品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward to 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward (literally the “north ward”).

Shinagawa is so south it borders on Edo Bay. Kita is so north that it borders on Saitama Prefecture.

If you’re ever lost looking at a map of the vast train system in Tōkyō, you can use this line as an anchor.





Keihin-Tōhoku Sen (Tōkyō-Yokohama & East-North Line)

In central Tōkyō, this combined JR East line is best known by this name but it is, in fact, 2 separate train routes, with a main route running through T

The name is interesting because it’s made of two abbreviations:

hoku north

This name has a dual purpose: it could refer to a train that goes from the East to the North; it could refer to a train that goes from the Eastern (Capital) to the North; and it could refer to Tōhoku region in general. In this case, it’s a combination of the first two.

kei the capital
hin the coast

京浜 Keihin “Tōkyō and Yokohama” is a thing. This is a word that all Japanese people will understand. There is a long standing tradition of creating these kinds of words. Here are a few similar examples that all Japanese would instantly recognize:

日米 Nichibei Japan and America
日朝 Nicchō Japan and North Korea
日韓 Nikkan Japan and South Korea
日中 Nicchū Japan and China
薩長 Sacchō Satsuma and Chōshū
阪神 Hanshin Ōsaka and Kobe

The combined name represents the combined distance of the whole route. Basically this is a train that goes from Yokohama → Tōkyō then from Tōkyō (east) → Saitama (north). It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that. Thank you very much, JR East. We love you.

This one is heading to Sengaku-ji. Probably in honor of Keanu Reeves new abomination.

This one is heading to Sengaku-ji.
Probably in honor of Keanu Reeves new abomination.

Keikyū Dentetsu (Tōkyō to Narita Electrified Line)

First I want to say that the general word for train in Japanese is 電車 densha. This word literally means “electric vehicle.” But the actual dictionary word for train is 列車 ressha, literally “line/parade” + “vehicle.”  There are two words I think Meiji Era people would have recognized[iii]:  the first is 機関車 kikansha steam locomotive – this would have been a luxury train linking cities that already had or were developing intense trade routes. The second is 馬車鉄道 basha tetsudō horse powered street cars/trolleys, these linked local urban centers and served the function of the modern subways/trains. Most of Meiji Era Japan would have been familiar with the steam locomotives that brought goods in and out of their small towns, but in a massive urban center like Tōkyō (bolstered by the bustling international port of Yokohama[iv]) people became more and more dependent on horse drawn lines. As steam locomotives fell out of use and more and more train lines became electrified, the term densha became more common. Even today an エスエル SL steam locomotive would probably be referred to as a 電車 densha electric train by the average person, though technically 列車 ressha generic train or 汽車 kisha steam train would be more appropriate as there is no electrification.


We’ve established that 京浜 keihin is a quick way to say “Tōkyō and Yokohama.”

京浜急行電鉄株式会社 Keihin Kyūkō Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha Tōkyō-Yokohama Express Railroad (official company name) got shortened to 京浜急行 Keihin Kyūkō Tōkyō-Yokohama Express which in turn got shortened to 京急 Keikyū Tōkyō Express (literal meaning “Tōkyō Fast”). Not a fan of the train line, but I’m a big fan of the name!

For those who are interested, this line runs from Shinagawa to Miura Kaigan. The Black Ships have a connection to Shinagawa and Miura Anjin is inextricably linked to the Miura Coast near Yokohama.


Keisei Sen (T
ōkyō-Narita Line)

kei the capital
sei Narita (city made famous by its airport)

I hate the Keisei Line. Let it be known.

It’s mediocre at best when compared to other train lines. That said, it’s convenient and it’s not so crowded. It always runs on time… ok… I shouldn’t hate on this train. I just hate sitting on local trains when I have to go to the airport or come home from a long 14 hour trip…. Also the Keisei Line has this horribly creepy pedo-panda that stares at you. Begone pedo-panda!

Keisei pedo-panda

Keisei pedo-panda

But the name means “the line that links the Capital with Narita.” That’s an easily understood name.

I’d still rather take the Skyliner (which is also a Keisei line, by the way). It’s one of my favorite trains in Japan. Going to the airport on the cheap is one thing, but coming home should be done in luxury.


Tōzai Sen (East-West Line)

西 sai west

So obviously this train line connects the East and West.

But you may have noticed that the directions are placed in orders unnatural in native English. In English, we have a set pattern, North-South, East-West. I’m not sure if that’s true in all countries, but in America that’s how I memorized it. This train connects Funabashi in Chiba (East) with Nakano (West).

The Tobu-Tojo Line is pretty complicated. I don't use it.

The Tobu-Tojo Line is pretty complicated.
I don’t use it.

Sen (Eastern Musashi – Going to the Capital Line)

This name is pretty interesting, I think. It’s a combined train line so I’m going to discuss the merged areas that bear a merged name.

The first portion of the name is 東武 Tōbu. This would combines two kanji we see time and time again here at JapanThis!.

east (also implies Tōkyō)
bu, mu Musashi Province

The area originally served by this train line was in Eastern Musashi[v]. The original plan was to connect eastern Gunma Prefecture with Tōkyō. The traditional name of that area was 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province. The province had an abbreviated name 上州Jōshū.

Kōzuke (Gunma Prefecture)

As the names of the old provinces faded into oblivion in common memory and plans to connect Gunma Prefecture with Tōkyō by this train line were abandoned, the word Tōjō took on a new meaning.

east (implies Tōkyō)
up (ie; going to the capital)

The idea being that this train line brought rural and suburban areas into the capital.

This word 東上 tōjō is generally understood as “proceeding to the capital.” And by capital, I mean Tōkyō. Remember, for much of the pre-modern Era “the capital” was a somewhat ambiguous term. “Going to the capital” was generally described by a particular verb: 上京する jōkyō suru:

up (ie; going to the capital)
kyō the capital

Since the emperor moved to Edo-Tōkyō in 1868 the term 上京 jōkyō going to the capital has been generally understood as “going to Tōkyō.” Before Meiji Era, this term generally referred to wherever the emperor lived (Nara and then Kyōto). In the late Edo Period this term seems to have been applied to both Kyōto and Tōkyō, much to the chagrin of the foreign powers hoping to establish trade relations with Japan. The foreign embassies had a lot of problems figuring out what Japanese people meant when they referred to “the capital.” The real power was in Edo with the shōgun, but there was this pesky problem with the emperor back in Kyōto…

At any rate, while jōkyō ambiguously refers to going to a capital, tōjō ambiguously refers to going to the east (with an implicit understanding of Tōkyō). This has ensured that feelings aren’t hurt and that traditional east-west rivalries can be maintained. This makes for good baseball – trust me.


Fukutoshin Sen (Second City Line)

This one confused me for a while because I wasn’t sure how to render the name into English. There’s a famous comedy club in Chicago called Second City. I think that it’s good way to render this name.

都心 toshin heart of the city
fuku second, vice-, sub-,

都心 toshin means the heart of the city. 副 fuku is a prefix that’s added to words to mean second. Some other fuku words are 副社長 fuku-shachō vice-president, 副局長 fuku-kyokuchō vice-commander (this was Hijikata Toshizō’s title in the Shinsengumi), and 副将軍 fuku-shōgun vice-shōgun (this was Mito Kōmon’s title).

Well, if this name refers to some mysterious “second city,” that begs the question, “where the hell is the first city?” This is a great question because it brings up another Japanese word that has roughly the same meaning as fuku-toshin: 新都心 shin-toshin new city center. By the way, part of my difficulty with rendering these words into English is the fact that most dictionaries render them both as “sub-center.” Most of this confusion is based in the rampant urban sprawl from the area that was once Edo areas out into other portions of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Area and even into the boarding prefectures.

Here’s the real deal:

Ōtemachi & Marun
heart of the city
(located in the heart of Edo)
Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno/Asakusa, Kinshich
ō, Kameido, Ōsaki
sub-centers (second cities)
(located in the outskirts of Edo)
Saitama City, Chiba Makuhari
sub-centers (new cities)
(located waaaaay out there)

Why does it have this name? Because it connects Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro and Wakō (Saitama) – all of which are sub-centers of Tōkyō. Tōkyō is a crowded-ass place. It needs sub-centers to alleviate the commuter traffic and overcrowding. This line was developed with these sub-centers in mind.


Saikyō Sen (Saitama-Tōkyō Line)

sai Saitama
kyō the capital (Tōkyō)

Easy enough to understand from the kanji alone. This train line connects Tōkyō and Saitama. It originates in Ōsaki (the outskirts of Edo) and terminates in Ōmiya (modern Saitama).


Sōbu Sen (Sōbu Line)

This is my favorite train line name because it’s the most historical… at least in terms of its historical linguistic charm. It’s made of two kanji that I hope long time readers of JapanThis! are all familiar with.

mu Musashi (ie; Edo-Tōkyō)

Wait a second? Why does 下総 Shimōsa mean 千葉 Chiba?

Well, Chiba Prefecture is a modern construct. The traditional name of the province was Shimōsa[viii].  While Chiba Prefecture maintains its traditional lameness with a vengeance, it actually carries on a lot of Edo Period legacies. The National Museum of Japanese History is there. The city of 佐原 Sawara is there. I’ve said before that Edo was like a Venice of the East and Sawara is said to be like a Little Edo.

And with that, I have a real THANK YOU that I have to say to everyone who reads my silly, nerdy blog.

You all freaking rule!


You rule.

(I won’t be able to write a new article until after New Year’s. Will you forgive me for that?)

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[i] Don’t worry! I’m stockpiling a massive list for 2014. Next year’s going to be so much better than this year.
[ii] I need to talk more about the fluid nature of the term “Yamanote” later. But for now, that’s enough.
[iii] And I could be wrong about this…
[iv] Remember, while Edo kept itself closed off to international traffic they relegated business to the nearby Yokohama. Yokohama might still just be a minor Japanese port city had the shōgunate not maintained its prohibition on maritime traffic in and out of Edo Bay.
[v] What was Musashi, you ask? There’s an app for that!
[vi] I took the liberty of investigating why  さいたま市  Saitama-shi Saitama City is written in hiragana, while 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture is written in kanji. Saitama City is actually a collection of cities that were united to create a new urban center (a new sub-center, if you will). At that time they wanted to distinguish the city from the prefecture visually. Also they thought it gave a softer, more inviting image. So it’s basically just a random decision.
[vii] This kanji doesn’t mean “Chiba.” The reality is in medieval Japan this area was known as 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province and there was also a 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province. The latter being the upper territory and the former being the lower.
[viii] See my article on Ryōgoku for a little more insight into this issue.

  1. Hey, great article, just wanted to let you know that you wrote 日米 instead of 日中 😉

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