Dekotora: Japanese word usually defined as ‘Decorated Trucks’. Alternate spelling Decotora also accepted. ‘Art Trucks’ is another suitable name.
You gotta love dekotora. I mean, how could you not? Just look at ‘em! In this side of the world, we’ve probably been exposed to them, albeit briefly, through movies like Black Rain. Trucks transformed into rolling artwork and/or light shows are nothing new. Every country has their take. This is Japan’s. I’ve been fascinated by dekotora for some time now, but writing about it would’ve proven difficult because of how little information there is about ‘em. Usually, all I’d find would be image collections and a Wikipedia copy-paste. Thankfully, thanks to both a Jalopnik video post and a Speedhunters article, I feel that I’m better prepared to discuss dekotora a little better than a year ago. The following video documentary has been re-posted on a couple of websites already, but I feel it’s worth sharing not just for the glimpse inside the world of dekotora, but because what the truck driver says resonates with the automotive enthusiast as a whole.
Momojiro, aka First Star, is the hopeless romantic/tough-looking one. His rig is on the left, the one with the star. I believe it gets redesigned in later movies. Jonathan is the homely dressed one. His rig is on the right. I’m unsure of the rest of the characters. I’m not even sure which of the movies is this poster from. Both trucks are icons and good examples of vintage style dekotora.
It’s no surprise that dekotora is embedded into Japanese pop-culture: anime, manga, music videos, movies, etc. The documentary’s truck driver mentioned old movies as inspiration. The one mentioned, called Truck Yaro/Torakku Yaro/Truck Guys is actually a series of 10 movies. Their popularity took dekotora –which already existed- to unprecedented levels of popularity. That was in the 1970s.
When looking for pictures of dekotora (and you should), you’ll find modifications ranging from 1970s-retro style to the far more extravagant machines of the last couple of decades with more and brighter lights, more protective chrome plating, bigger cosmetic accessories and stylized parts (mirror brackets, light bars, etc.). These were parts which were solely functional, but their forms were taken to the extreme. In fact, if one knows their way around trucks, one can “reverse-engineer” all form from the function. One does not need 3-foot-tall lit-up tusk, but it works as a front overhang check.
Huh. That’s one way to deal with on-ramps. There are a number of dekotoras sporting similar front overhangs that have a similar solution.
The more extreme rigs are the ones that are more prominent on the Internet. One can’t help but compare a lot of them to sci-fi mech. Japan loves their sci-fi, so this comes as no surprise, but it’d be foolish to say this is the only source of inspiration. There’s been mention of ships and trains as well. Comparisons to traditional Japanese arcade machines (not videogames) are inevitable. For those that like dekotora but don’t want to go to the extremes pictured above, there are more restrained styles in the form of the Kanto-style (according to just one source). I wish to have found more of the Kansai-style. I assume it’s flashier. You may have deduced that these two styles are named after their respective region of origin. They’re also more contemporary. Gundam-style, named after the hugely popular giant-mech subgenre, has been mentioned here and there, but I’m under the impression this is a take on the aforementioned styles. But its impact on the scene is definitely noted. Retro-style is obvious.
Lupin the 3rd! Not seen are the DragonBall Z mural at the rear and the One Piece mural on the other side. The “cargo area” actually covers the actual cargo area, with another set of Lupin the 3rd murals, Toy Story mural on the right and a Japanese idol mural on the doors. Apparently, this truck goes by Megumi Maru (めぐみ丸), which could have multiple meanings (I’m going with ‘Ship of Blessings’). If you look at all the pics in the links, you’ll notice the truck at various stages of detail.
I’ve seen plenty of dekotora pictures, and while not all of them sport elaborate murals, those with artistic themes range from traditional Japanese art of varying topics (Geishas, Feudal Japan, Japanese mythology, nature) to straight up awesome stuff like dinosaurs, tigers, dragons, or tigers vs. dragons! Yes, koi fish as well. Of course, there’s the occasional pop-culture homage, whether local or foreign. Anime-themed ones are few, but those that I’ve seen do not disappoint. If only the Itasha crowd (those that make their cars and minivans rolling tributes to one or more anime characters/series with plenty of vinyl stickers and related merchandise) would choose proper anime characters to decorate their vehicles, rather than schoolgirls and Lolita-looking characters *shakes head in disappointment*…
Not even the Japanese trucking scene is safe from the paw of Hello Kitty. On another note, just look at that pattern on the tow truck’s chrome!
The trucks that start out as rolling canvases can be box trucks, dump trucks, tow trucks, flatbeds, the occasional semi-trailer truck and even garbage trucks. Many have been transformed to the point that one can’t simply tell the make and model, but it’s safe to say that names like Isuzu, Hino, UD Trucks, Nissan Diesel and Mitsubishi Fuso are included… for the last 4.5 decades at least. Big rigs aren’t the only ones getting dekotora’d. There’s always that one guy that dresses up a smaller vehicle aping the bigger ones…
Then there are guys that apply the look on something totally off the wall, like bicycles. They have a name for it: dekochari. It’s been going on for decades. They even have a Wikipedia entry and a documentary!
I got nothing. Moving on.
Customizing a truck in Japan has come a long way since the 1970s. Going through junkyards and/or picking parts from here and there for decoration doesn’t seem that necessary anymore, unless you’re a retro purist. While a lot of bolt-on stuff is available at Japanese trucker shops, much of it is custom-made, particularly the interiors, and I’m not just talking the cab area, there are cargo bays that get transformed into living arrangements that put many overpriced city apartments to shame. Hundreds of thousands of yen, even millions, are invested in the trucks, with generators needed to run all the lights and sound effects. Some are DIY jobs, but there are specialized shops that will happily turn your vision into reality. Then there’s maintaining the truck’s mechanical and electrical system if something goes wrong! Perhaps the owner wants to re-do the entire truck again!! If you’re wondering if these are all just show rigs, the answer’s yes and no. Aside from how wild the truck’s owner’s taste and wallet are, these trucks can be both. Work- dekotora drivers just have to be that little more careful, as well as making sure their rigs are legal. Impractical? Perhaps, but at least they’re not rolling airbrush art like some European trucks I’ve seen. If I were to pick an art style for my work rig, protective chrome plating beats all-out airbrush art in my book.
The game’s called SHIN BAKUSO DEKOTORA DENSETSU for the Japanese Playstation 2.
Dekotora model kits are a no-brainer. So is their prominence on Japanese trucking magazines. But videogames? That took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have but it did. Wikipedia lists at least 10 legit dekotora-themed videogames, not including background vehicles and unlockable trucks/characters. These range from modifying and racing to all-out demolition derby-style racing (think Burnout franchise). Some of these even have game guides! As a matter of fact, my first exposure to dekotora wasn’t through the Internet and it wasn’t love at first sight. In the 1990s arcade videogame 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker there was a dekotora among the selection. It was definitely different, but it was no Asphalt Cowboy, which I preferred.
Like the Mad Manga Hot Wheels car before it (sitting on top of the trailers), the Galactic Express trucks introduces a Japanese car subculture to the buying public outside Asia. More pics (and image source) here.
Do I want a dekotora? I’d love to experience driving one, but things like the idea of importing such big accessories from the Land of the Rising Shipping Fees (I made that name up, but really, generally shipping fees are expensive), as well as all the polishing, make me feel light-headed at the thought of building my own. The artist/geek in me –the reason I was attracted to dekotora in the first place- would love Thundercats, not-Michael Bay Transformers or Swat Kats murals, maybe Slam Dunk, Tenchi Muyo! or Ah! My Goddess to maintain the Japanese feel, but I don’t think I’d handle being the only one in my country rocking the style. I definitely like the idea of making it a rolling party-truck, with the lights pulsing at 128bpm in a predetermined pattern, as well as a novelty horn and back-up warning sounds emanating notes of historically iconic local songs.
Some of you will probably wonder how is this all legal. An article says that from 2011 onwards it isn’t. Then again, the Speedhunters article is from 2013 and that video posted at the beginning is many months old. I doubt that the video has more than five years since being filmed. Truthfully, there’s just not enough information on what qualifies the ban. I’m guessing that they’re not allowed to go full dekotora at night to avoid becoming a rolling hazard. Dekotora continues being part of Japan’s smooth roads, regardless of stricter regulations. That’s how dedicated their owners are. Even if for many of this scene isn’t our cup of green tea, surely the passion behind it is?
I just wish there was a picture book about ‘em. Oh, wait…
Dekotora, with model for scale. As mentioned, you don’t need a huge rig to rock the look. As we can see, front overhangs are useful for something.
Opening gif: made by me, powered by giphy
Lupin the 3rd themed dekotora: http://jpninfo.com
Dekotora on dekotora action: Jalopnik
Dekochari owners: http://www.battlegarage-rs.com
Dekotora tilt-up overhang, interior and nutty car: Flickr
Dekotora videogame: eBay
Dekotora Hot Wheels: http://liveandletdiecast.kinja.com/
Dekotora and model: http://www.jay-han.com