Exploring dekotora culture in Japan: You’ve never seen an 18-wheeler like this

Sarah Baird
A dekotora dump truck in action in Sendai.
Sarah Baird
SENDAI, Japan—The first time I saw a real, live dekotora truck, I was mid-stride on the eerily empty streets of Tokyo, trying to shake off a serious case of jet lag with a just-before-sunrise run. But when it passed by, I stopped. I couldn’t help but stare, wide-eyed, with all the heart-pounding enthusiasm of a fangirl seeing her favorite movie star in public. It was even more magical than I had imagined.
I would later realize this wasn’t even one of the fully tricked out, chandelier-on-the-inside 18-wheelers that have defined the dekotora culture for many and become such popular Internet fodder. No, this vehicle was an honest-to-goodness, trash-hauling garbage truck that had been painted ever-so-gently with the dekotora brush. There were runners of rainbow lights pulsing along the undercarriage, chrome extensions jutting out the top, hot pink lightning bolts blasting down the side. To me, it was still perfect.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a more-than-middling interest in trucker culture, even procuring my own CB radio handle by the time I reached middle school (it’s Croque Madame, if you ever want to chat). My playlists are often found littered with songs like “Freightliner Fever” by Red Sovine and “Truck Driver’s Blues” by Ferlin Husky. So when I learned about a Japanese subculture inspired by the height of the American trucking craze in the 1970s, it seemed almost too good to be true. But as a recent trip to Japan only confirmed, it is—gloriously—real and spectacular.

Rural roots

Dekotora—literally “decorated truck”—is the practice of adding bling-upon-bling to ho-hum working vehicles (traditionally semi-trucks) to the point that they’re more covered in shiny, flashy accessories than a display window at Tiffany’s. Dekotora trucks are often equipped with enough LED lights to make a pachinko parlor blush, and they give off a kind of “Future’s So Bight I’ve Gotta Wear Shades” vibe that’s undeniably robotic. They have big personality, and if you’ve ever wanted to anthropomorphize a vehicle, these are probably your best chance (Herbie the Love Bug notwithstanding).
How the dekotora craze began, though, starts with music. Throughout the '70s and '80s in Japan, American-inspired bluegrass, folk, and country experienced a serious boom, with aspiring Japanese banjo-pickers and fiddlers across the nation taking a shine to the twangier sounds coming out of the States. Country stars like Ralph Stanley began touring in the country, and a cultural cross-pollination brewed. (If you’re curious about the American-side of things, Live from Japan! by legendary country star Buck Owen is a great place to start—if only for the song, “Tokyo Polka.”)
It’s only fitting, then, that the Japanese also wanted to get in on another part of the '70s US country bubble: trucker culture and all its outlaw glory. In an answer to US films like Smokey and the Bandit, in 1975, the first Torakku Yaro (“Truck Rascals”) movie was released, and nine more followed through the end of the decade. Each Torakku Yaro installment followed a duo of dekotora-driving heroes on a different, lovelorn wild goose chase. And while the goofy plots and affable characters certainly spoke to audiences, it’s the glittery dekotora trucks that inspired a movement.
Of course, dekotora isn’t the only oddball, motorized subculture in Japan. The rebellious, souped-up motorcycle gangs known as bosozoku have been immortalized in comics and anime for decades, even inspiring a signature aesthetic for riders. Drift racing made its way into the mainstream with films like Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, thanks in no small part to the late, great Paul Walker (RIP). But it's dekotora that most directly reflects Japan’s unique ability to take hobby to the extreme: adopting a foreign concept, then morphing it so dramatically it’s impossible not to see it as wholly Japanese.
“Dekotora trucks are beautiful. They remind me of the Faberge egg, of extremely long and heavily jeweled fingernails, even, yes, they remind me of that outrageous trend from some years ago, vajazzling,” writes Mary Duffy, examining dekotora in a literary piece I (full-disclosure) commissioned her to write for a larger package on trucking. “This latter comes to mind because dekotora trucks are sexy, in the way that lingerie is sexy, in the way that excess is sexy. Sometimes, only too much is enough.”
Ever hear of Truck Rascals?

Adopted all over

At times, this level of over-the-top “sexy” can seem almost glutinous. But the Internet, as it is wont to do, has long salivated over the sheer opulence of the most outlandish dekotora trucks: the kind with tens of thousands of yen invested in their upkeep, whether it takes the form of hand-painted murals on the hoods or a completely Pucci-carpeted interior. In some instances, this lavishness means decking out a truck like a carnival ride, turning it into a veritable Ferris wheel of strobe lights and pulsing delight. And while some people might be impressed by the whirligig nature of the trucks lit up like Lite Brites, for me, it’s the rigs with stacks-on-stacks of hyper-polished chrome that are the most jarring. The customized weighty façade quickly becomes nothing short of an exoskeleton.
Today, when these supreme enthusiasts gather by the hundreds at meets across the country, there’s enough flash to put any American hot rod roundup to shame. These en masse gatherings were all but wrapped for the season by the time I hit Japan late this year (I would’ve loved nothing more than to climb into the cab of one of those bad boys), but I learned something perhaps even more important: dekotora is practically everywhere—if you’re looking for it.
Unsurprisingly, it appears with regularity in video games. The majority of the time, the trucks simply help set the scene (like at a pit stop or garage), but several games have even been built almost entirely around the machines. The PlayStation classic Bakuso Dekotora Densetsu is the best known example of this and the most directly focused on dekotora culture: before heading out to bob-and-weave among cars along the pixilated roadways, the “art trucks” are customized in the “shop” with all the trinkets and gadgets imaginable. Taking it one step further, the dekotora-themed Zenkoku Dekotora Matsuri was released in 2008 and specifically tailored for the Wii, making the truck-decorating and racing experience even more interactive.
Comics, too, serve as a frequent home for dekotora storylines, but it’s the fashion industry that has become the most unlikely pop culture partner for the trucks. A number of designers have taken a shine to dekotora as the ideal backdrop for a certain type of “edgy” photo shoot, including the fall 2015 collection from designer House of Holland. The clothing line was not only photographed in front of the trucks, but the influence of the vehicles on the clothes themselves (think: mixed up patterns, graffiti vibe) is difficult to ignore. Even more surprising, when wandering through the Ginza neighborhood one day, I was shocked to find that the current global ad campaign for Gucci features supermodels tooling around Tokyo in a dekotora truck, with breathy, scene-setting captions on each heavily stylized photo. (“Shimmering electronic tones” is one.)
It’s the trickle down influence of grandiose dekotora displays, though, that might be the most charming result of all. Dump trucks, vegetable-hauling trucks, garbage trucks—you name it—all roll around with little pieces of flashy design peeking out, showing off just a touch of personality while remaining, ahem, businesslike. Some of these trucks use pre-fab kits to gussy themselves up, sure, but for others, the trucks are a veritable creative canvas. At Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, one box truck hauling live squid had a massive mural of a cresting wave painted elegantly on its side—and some chrome, for good measure. When I asked a dump truck driver parked at a gas station in Sendai why he had lined the entirety of his cab with blue tinsel and felt (really, it was everywhere), he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know! Dekotora, maybe. I guess I just like blue.” And a neon-pink electrical truck I spied one evening had gone to great lengths to make his vehicle look strangely amphibious, right down to a painting of a frog relaxing by a fishing hole on the passenger-side door. “It’s cute, right?” The driver asked, smiling. I laughed.
Even fancy bicycles—known as dekochari—have gained a younger fan base across Japan, tricking out bicycles as much as the laws of balance and gravity will allow.
Whether or not dekotora will ever catch on in the US—completing the cycle of cultural give-and-take—remains to be seen, but some signs point toward “yes.” Several Japanese-focused auto dealers, like this one in Richmond, Virginia, have customized their own dekotora vehicles as mascots, and the practice seems ripe for a snowballing of domestic interest. Even Hot Wheels caught on earlier this year, surprising even the most adamant collector by releasing the first-ever dekotora truck matchbox car in April. (It’s bright purple, if you’re curious.) Safe to say, though, American novices will never quite touch the grandeur of the Japanese on this, leaving an open highway of opportunity that stretches on into the horizon for years to come—if people are willing to take the ride.
Sarah Baird is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. She served as a US-Japan Fellow with the International Center for Journalists. Follow along with her on Twitter: @scbaird.
Exploring dekotora culture in Japan: You’ve never seen an 18-wheeler like this Reviewed by Bizpodia on 04:20 Rating: 5

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