Travel

Japan Has an Awesome Subculture of Gundam-Style Bikes

Unfortunately, these over-the-top bikes are becoming pretty rare.

by VICE Japan; translated by Radesa Guntur Budipramono
Aug 2 2017, 4:00am

VICE Japón

This article originally appeared on VICE Japan. Special thanks to Yuki Sugawara for telling our Tokyo office about this kid.

There was a time, way back in the "golden 60s," when "truck driver" was a hot career in Japan. It was the middle of the country's post-war "economic miracle," a three-decade-long period that saw Japan nearly overtake the United States as the world's dominate economy. The country built a massive nationwide highway system to keep the growing economy moving, and with these highways came a new breed of truck—big, boxy road beasts that rumbled from coast to coast.

Japanese truck drivers began to obsessively customize their trucks, turning bland boxy work vehicles into an outrageous chrome and neon masterpieces. They dubbed these custom trucks "dekotora"—short for "decoration truck"—and the drivers started to form clubs to show off their wild creations.

By the mid 70s, the Japanese film company Toei caught wind of the trend and released the hit movie Torakku Yarō. Then they released another. And another. And another. In all, Toei made ten Torakku Yarō films, turning dekotora into a national icon. Actors Bunta Sugawara and Aikawa Tetsuya became huge stars.

Japanese kids especially loved Torakku Yarō and dekotora, because what young person doesn't love over-the-top trucks that look like something out of Gundam? These kids started to customize their mamachari bikes, decking them out with the same chrome, lights, and paint styles as their favorite dekotora. And thus, the dekochari (decoration mamachari) was born.

But by the 90s, a crackdown by Japanese authorities nearly killed the dekotora trend. The dekochari was on the verge of going extinct as well.

Fast-forward to 2017, when VICE's Tokyo office met a young boy who, against all odds, is trying to preserve the dekochari culture. Kōta Saguchi is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the small coastal city of Hamamatsu who is the proud owner of a dekochari named Tenryū-maru.

VICE Japan caught up with Saguchi to talk dekochari, Torakku Yarō, and how awesome it would be to one day own a dekotora of his own.

VICE: How did your fascination with dekochari begin?
Kōta Saguchi: My dad is a truck driver, and he used to take me to his dekotora club meetings. That's how I was introduced to dekotora. I've been reading this magazine called Camion since I was two years old, so I knew what dekochari was, but it was only during a visit to a relative's house that I first saw a real dekochari: the Tenryū-maru. It was something else.

So wait, you've been reading Camion since you were two years old?
Well, at the time I was just randomly turning the pages, but I am a subscriber these days. They usually send me the magazine two days before it goes on sale for the public.

What do you do at dekotora club meetings?
We gather, we hang out, we take pictures, and so on. I recently participated in an event organized by Utamaro-kai.

Speaking of Utamaro-kai , didn't they cooperate with the filming of Torakku Yarō . Do you like Torakku Yarō ?
Sure. I've watched the whole series, all ten of them. I've even memorized the story; the second and third movies left the biggest impression on me. I really like this song called "Torakku Ondo" ("Truckers' March") from the third movie.

Between Bunta Sugahara's Momojiro Hoshi and Jonathan, who's your favorite character?
Bunta Sugahara's character, I guess. I really like the retro style of Momojiro Hoshi's dekotora, the Ichibanboshi-gō.

What sort of activity does the All-Japan Dekochari Youth Association do?
We have 17 members from all over Japan, ranging from Aomori to Kagoshima. Sometimes we hang out at dekotora club meetings or exchange dekochari construction methods and tricks over our LINE group. If you want to join, you have to build at least one dekochari on your own.

Do you show off your dekochari to one another or go on a dekochari ride together?
Nah. To be honest, there are more members that I haven't met than the ones I have.

Why is that?
The nearest member lives in Izu [roughly 370 kms away], so it's not easy for us to see each other. Besides, dekochari is not something you ride. It is more for the decorative aspects, the lighting and all. I have never taken my Tenryū-maru off the grounds of my house. I don't think any of our neighbors know that we have something like this in our garage.

The Tenryū-maru is said to command respect from dekochari fanboys all over the country. Who made it?
It was made by one of my relatives who used to be the second-generation leader of All-Japan Dekochari Youth Association. He graduated from high school and the association this year and he gave the Tenryū-maru to me. Now I'm in the process of upgrading my own dekochari, the Saguchi Shōten.

Can you tell me the design concept behind Tenryū-maru?
The overall concept is commonly referred to as Gundam-style design. The front bumper takes its cue from a snowplow. The octagonal rocket and the two tower antennas are other defining characteristics.

It certainly looks mech-ish, a bit like Gundam. How about the rear luggage carrier? What did you build it out of?
Plywood and timber. The portrait decorating the luggage carrier—do you know whose portrait that is?

Pretty sure I've seen her face somewhere before...
The actress, Suzu Hirose. It's common to find portraits of Aki Yashiro or Shizuka Kudo on the back of dekotora, but apparently my relative opted for Suzu Hirose instead.

Do you use a car battery used to power the vehicle?
Indeed, it uses 12V car battery to power the decorative lighting, the rear camera, and the speakers.

Are your classmates also into dekochari?
There are other boys who are interested in dekochari, but no one in my school shares my hobby.

Are you the youngest member of the dekochari association?
No. There's a second-year middle schooler in Kagoshima. He makes dekochari with his brother.

I see. So how do you gather the parts needed to build a dekochari?
Sometimes I receive secondhand parts from dekotora drivers who live around here. They also taught me how to attach the parts. I also frequent a nearby truck parts shop called Miyaji.

Is Miyaji famous?
Famous? How should I put it… Well, it's close. As for the wood, an acquaintance of my father lets me have some for free.

What do you want to do when you grow up?
I'd love to drive a truck someday. My father no longer drives, but he has plans to buy trucks and start a transportation company. So after I graduate from high school, I plan to get a medium-sized truck drivers' license and help my father.

Are you are going to remodel trucks together with your father?
My father doesn't mess with decorative lighting, so I'll do that alone. He has his own taste, so I have that to consider while slowly, but surely remodeling the trucks in my own style.