"Who's to say there is a difference?" said the baffled, balding customer in khaki pants and a green windbreaker. I had asked him what the difference between Japanese and Western rail fans was.
Clutching a miniature train station and some extra track, the man wasn't interested in discussing the topic further, but rather, making his way to the hobby store's register.
Who is to say there's a difference between how trains are viewed in Japan and the West? Thing is, there is.
Rail fans are train enthusiasts; in Japan, there is a monthly publication with the English title Japan Railfan Magazine magazine, which began publication in 1961. Rail enthusiasts are called "tetsudo fan" (鉄道ファン) or simply "tecchan". "Tetsudo" literally means "railroad", and there are even nicknames for male tetsudo fans ("tetsuo") and female ones ("tetsuko").
The first Japanese rail fans didn't go loco for real locomotives, but for model trains. Decades later, the entire country is mad for trains.
There were mentions of railroads in Japan as early as 1846, such as Dutch traders telling the Japanese shogunate their plans to build railroads across Panama. One shipwrecked Japanese sailor recounted his experiences of a railway trip in America. According to Samurai, Shoguns & the Age of Steam, "When you look outside the house-shaped object, it's as though you were a bird in flight, and there's no time to get a good look at things."
In August 1853, Russian diplomat Yevfimy Putyatin arrived in Nagasaki a month after Commodore Perry and the Americans, and demonstrated a small toy steam engine (complete with tracks!) on his ship. Later that year, Hisashige Tanaka, the Edison of Japan and founder what became Toshiba, developed the country's first steam engine. In 1868, a Scottish merchant imported a replica of the "Iron Duke" from the Great Western Railway in England, and the train was demoed for Japan on an 8 mile track. By 1871, Japan opened its first railroad, which serviced Tokyo's Shimbashi and Yokohama. A weak Japanese government couldn't afford to nationalize the rails, something that did finally happen as the country entered war. A handful of private rail companies popped up as Japan's industrialization continued. By 1893, Japan was no longer importing trains. The country was making its own.
Historically, the meaning of trains for Japan differ from that in the West. For Westerners, trains—steam locomotives, rather—were feats of engineering. This was uncharted territory. Of course, the idea of a horseless carriage during that time was almost fantasy. As trains developed, they came to symbolize freedom. In America, the Transcontinental Railroad meant a vast country began connected.
Japan, however, was late to modernize due to "sakoku" or its "locked nation" policy that largely cut the country off from the outside world. For Japan, trains were the modern world, everything Japan had denied for centuries, but was so eager to catch up on. Trains were the West.
It's easy to see the appeal of trains. They're large powerful machines able to cover distances at great speeds and carry a large number of passengers. They are also beautiful examples of engineering.
In the years before the war, Japan was reverse-engineering British and American trains and covering the country in tracks. The 20th century's automobiles hurt rail travel in Europe and even more so in the U.S., but automobiles didn't make the same impact in Japan. Western vehicles were imported into Japan in very small numbers before the war, and American car companies like Ford and Chrysler had automobile plants in places like Yokohama and Osaka. Japanese car companies, such as Toyota, emerged in the 1930s, but even in the years following the war, owning one car was not the norm. Even today, many who live in large cities don't even own cars, and those families who do tend to own only one vehicle. The late blossoming of Japan's auto industry allowed the country's train networks to come into their own, largely undisturbed. Railway companies, such as Hankyu, put up department stores in their hub terminals, making associations between trains and fancy department stores that exists even to this day.
In the years following the war, Japan set to work not only rebuilding its bombed-out train network, but fulfilling its aim to make the Shinkansen or "bullet train". The first bullet train line, which still runs from Osaka to Tokyo, opened in 1964 to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The bullet train's inaugural journey was a national event. The train, namely the bullet train, no longer simply meant the West, it meant that Japan had rebuilt from World War II's destruction. The train became a manifestation of Japanese ingenuity and propensity.
The train no longer simply meant the West, it meant that Japan had rebuilt from World War II's destruction.
Even today, the unveiling of new trains (or the retiring of old ones) makes the evening news. Tetsudo fans crowd on train platforms to take photos and video. Train tickets for these special trips often sell out in minutes and go for premium prices online. Rail fans are occasionally sent taking photos from platforms even when there aren't special events, in hopes of capturing their favorite train. A small number of dedicated rail fans even record the train conductor's voice, then practice and either "mouth along" or speak outright during train announcements. There is even a high-priced gray market for "used" train uniforms, which train companies do not sell and do not allow to be sold.
As with in Europe and even in the U.S. to a certain extent, train fandom exists in youth. There is a whole toy train complex in Japan to cater to little boys. Tomy's Plarail system launched in 1959 and has been delighting little kids every since. The more realistic Tomy trains are made under the Tomy Tech Tomix brand are aimed at adults. Europe, namely Germany, is a master at art of toy trains. It's not that Tomy's trains are better, it's that they're Japanese. Kids can buy Plarail trains from a huge variety of Japanese train lines, whether that be the JR Yamanote Line or the Keihan Line. The desire to play with a smaller version of the "real thing" is universal. Even as a kid in Texas, I had my Lionel and LGB trains—yet in Texas, where cars are king, they seemed more exotic than real. That probably was their appeal; no wonder Western model trains are popular in Japan, too. A plethora of arcade and home console games pick up where the toys left off.
While train simulator games seem like perfect job training, becoming a train conductor in Japan is not easy. Railways have examinations aimed at weeding out the simple rail fanatic from highly-punctual and disciplined individuals. Being "late" is defined in seconds. According to writer Yuko Mito, the average Shinkansen delay is 20 seconds, and for other Japan Railways trains is about fifty seconds. "Some countries may laugh at this apparent obsession with punctuality, attributing such fastidiousness to Japanese passengers' maniacal preoccupation with time," wrote Mito. "But the real reason that trains run on time is not because of demanding passengers but because it suits the adaptation strategies of the railroad companies." That is, continued Mito, it is easier to deal with large numbers of trains and large numbers of passengers if everything is functioning on time. The pressure is immense. Breaking that schedule even by 90 seconds can lead to disastrous and deadly decisions as evident by the 2005 accident, near Osaka—a rare accident on Japan's rails, considered the safest in the world.
There are delays, but they are usually either natural disasters or suicides. Jumping in front of a train in Japan must be one of the most expensive suicides on earth. The railway line ends up billing the family of person who committed suicide for lost revenue, delays and damages. It depends on the location and the time of day, but the huge bill is designed to prevent train-jumping.
In the West, there is a notion that trains are a groping free-for-all. They might have been in the past; large numbers of anonymous people packed together on crowded trains. Incidents are unfortunately bound to happen. In recent years, "Women Only" carriages appeared, first in Osaka and then elsewhere. The frequency of groping on Osaka trains is apparently quite high; there are announcements and posters reminding passengers that groping is a crime. Initially, the Women Only carriages angered some men, who said they painted all men as potential gropers. However, one well-known incident in particular, in which a man was unfairly accused of groping (and even sent to jail), made many rethink their beef and take steps such as not standing next to women on trains, in order to avoid being unfairly accused.
An entire cottage industry even erected to support train groping or "chikan" fantasies. After the initial 1960s train euphoria faded—by the mid-1980s in particular—more and more films with groping themes felt their way to theaters and home video. Director Yojiro Takita released a slew of Molester's Train films, and his protegee, Shūji Kataoka, churned out Subway Serial Rape: Lover Hunting. Takita is most well known to Western audiences for the Academy Award-winning film Departures. By the early 1990s, train rape films glutted Japan's "pink films", but they were far darker and more violent than Takita's original films. "Molester's Trains" morphed into a skin flick subgenre. "Image health" clubs (think: themed blow job parlors) also rolled out phony train carriages for customers to have a go on, with working actors who were paid to act like unsuspecting commuters.
These sexual fetishizations are not directed at trains themselves, but rather, the opportunity they present. They are a public space where you can have a chance—and anonymous—encounter. Trains here are an enabler, not an object of fetish unto themselves and are no different from other Japanese niche pornography that focuses on, for example, elevator girls (department store employees who operate elevators). The book and ensuing film and TV series Train Man shows a far purer example of the opportunities trains present. A lowly otaku stands up to a drunk on the train who was hassling a beautiful woman; she eventually falls in love with the otaku.
Actual "train porn", photo after photo of only trains, do exist. There are picture books and videos that catalogue the various trains across the country. Train photo books aimed at children are also popular. These are not sexual in anyway whatsoever, and are simply endless photos of the country's amazing trains.
Japanese trains are amazing. Trains are what Japan shows foreign dignitaries when they visit. Trains are, when all is said and done, one of the things Japan will be remembered for. Trains are what Japan can accomplish. And trains are what lifted the country's spirits from one of the darkest times in its history.
Last month, right before the Great East Japan Earthquake rocked the country on March 11, the island of Kyushu in Western Japan was celebrating the then upcoming March 12 opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen line that connects Hakata to Kagoshima. Then the quake hit, and the opening ceremony were canceled. The television commercial, which was created to celebrate the Kyushu Shinkansen's maiden trip, was yanked from the air under the assumption that people didn't want to see ad with happy faces waving at trains and would rather see public service announcements.
Those assumptions were wrong. People do. The three-minute ad is now making its way back on air, and the YouTube version went viral. It currently has over 1.5 million views. Over 10,000 people showed up for the ad's filming, and three hours of footage was trimmed down to three minutes. At the end of the commercial, the announcer says, "That day, thanks for waving, thanks for smiling, thanks for coming together." The announcer says that by coming together, a new power is born in Kyushu and a united Kyushu should make Japan a more enjoyable place. The commercial is striking a chord with Japanese people, showing people coming together and the things Japan can still accomplish. No wonder this nation fell in love with trains.