Trainspotting gone wrong? | Borneo Online Newsletter
TOKYO (AFP) – Crowds, clashes and head-on attacks. Japan’s many train fans are mostly mild-mannered enthusiasts with a passion for the country’s famous rail system, but one small group is gaining surprising notoriety.
Japan’s rail system has long been the envy of the world, with its famous punctuality, advanced technology and meticulous schedules.
It’s no surprise, then, that the country is home to a diverse landscape of train enthusiasts, from those who enjoy poring over timetables to others who adore and even record the roar of passing trains.
However, perhaps the most well-known group is a tribe nicknamed toritetsu (train photographers), who strive to take perfect photos of approaching trains.
They’ve been around for decades, but in recent years reports of shouting matches, intrusions, and even violence at train stations have made toritetsu the bad boys of Japanese trainspotting.
Some have argued that the out-of-control behavior is not entirely new, citing frantic goodbyes for retired steam locomotives in the 1960s and 70s.
But recent incidents, including the harassment of a photobombing cyclist and an assault that left a teenager with a fractured skull last year, have some enthusiasts worried.
“Manners have definitely gotten worse,” said 70-year-old Masao Oda, who has been photographing trains for about 50 years.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling for a toritetsu like 27-year-old Akira Takahashi.
“People are pointing at me now,” said Takahashi, whose dearest obsession is the EF66 electric locomotive model, which he describes as his “idol”.
“The negative image of us prevails now…I don’t want to be lumped in with some of us who are causing trouble.”
Most fans are more like 19-year-old college student Ryunosuke Takagai, who is known for getting up at five in the morning to document his passion and sometimes works part-time in factories to fund his hobby.
“I love everything about trains – their sound, their atmosphere,” he said. AFP.
“That moment when you manage to capture the train you’ve been waiting for for hours is really rewarding,” he said.
The increasingly rowdy behavior of some toritetsu may be driven by their search for the perfect shot, according to freelance railroad journalist Jun Umehara, a former staffer at one of Japan’s top railroad magazines.
He said factors such as fewer “retired” trains and more urban development mean amateur photographers are stuck in smaller spaces as they pursue their dream images.
“Every train has its last moment, which for them is the last missing piece of the puzzle they need to complete their photo collection,” he said.
“The thought of missing that last piece is almost unbearable for them,” Umehara added.
“Hence the desperation.”
Housing construction over the years has also seen some old filming locations razed to the ground, making it even harder for toritetsu to emulate the “flawless” train photos they grew up admiring.
The images, featured by Japan’s niche railroad magazines with their devoted toritetsu readership, are often taken with a clear view of the trains – devoid of obstacles such as fences, trees and passengers.
“But mimicking these exemplary photos in real-life situations is nearly impossible,” Umehara said. “And yet, that is what they are looking for.”
The train fan community includes a diverse group of enthusiasts, including noritetsu, who simply enjoy traveling on trains, ekibentetsu, who focus on ekiben bentos – boxed meals sold at train stations, and soshikitetsu, so-called “mourners” of retiring trains. .
Nationally, there were about five million train fans – from casual to hardcore – in 2015, according to senior consultant at Tokyo-based NRI Social Information System Services firm Nobuaki Takada.
And invasive toritetsu became a growing problem for rail operators, who often responded with heavier security.
But last year, industry giant East Japan Railway Company, commonly known as JR East, changed course and launched an official fan club for train enthusiasts.
“Toritetsu can actually be counted on to take beautiful pictures of our trains and promote them on the Internet,” said an official of JR East Start UP Co subsidiary Yusuke Yamamoto.
“So instead of treating them as our enemies, we wanted to build a good relationship with them through this community of fans.”
He wants to see the community overcome the stigma associated with its fringe elements, citing how anime and manga obsessives have become more mainstream and less socially isolated in Japan.
“Toritetsu is a culture, and I hope its image will change,” Yamamoto said.