The truck is king of the road in Japan. And there is a special breed of truck that is both distinctively fearsome, yet elegant: kind of like Las Vegas on wheels. These trucks are called decotora, which is a melded abbreviation of the words “decorated” and “truck”. Decotora can be seen all throughout Japan though it is said that the original decotora was driven by a trucker from Aomori prefecture.
A burdensome amount of of glittering chrome with protruding attachments excitingly transforms the standard factory issue body. Many of the trucks look like they could have been used in the Road Warrior. At night many light up like a marquee due to a heavy compliment of exterior lighting in various colors. And the rough bass rumbling sound that emerge from their mufflers make there presence known before they can be seen.
Accessorizing these rolling behemoths requires a significant financial investment. As I heard from the men and women who drive decotora, the added weight of the decorations pulls down the gas mileage greatly, adding to their expense. Needless to say, the customization of these trucks goes far beyond practicality. So why do they make them? To borrow folklorist Simon J. Bronner’s words, they are a “public show of labor”*. This is true in the sense that truckers drive to earn the money which is then invested into their trucks, and also in that conceivably a considerable amount of creative effort is put into designing a decotora, and then finally there is the actual physical act of labor that goes in to customizing these rigs.
*Simon J. Bronner, Grasping Things: Folk Material Culture and Mass Society in America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), p.130.
In the decorations of these tricked out rigs we may find many auspicious symbols which is of personal interest to me as a religious folklorist. On the back door of these two trailers are images of fortuitous deities. On the right truck are painted the Seven Gods of Good Luck; on the left are Daikoku and Ebisu (two members of the Seven Gods of Good Luck). These images are believed to bring fortune (in business) and protection when driving, from traffic accidents and the like.
The door design of a frog is another example. A frog in Japanese is ka-e-ru, which has the same pronunciation with the word for “to return home”. This play on words coupled with the Chinese characters buji (safely, without incident) written on the back of the frog means “to return home safely”. This frog image therefore acts like a talisman to protect the driver from accidents.
This decoration extending from the side of the cab has written koi ni koi shite (“fall in love with love”) reveals the romantic side of the driver.
This is a Toyota van all tricked out. ↓
These are two popular singers, Ayumi Hamasaki on the back door, and Yazawa Eikichi. It is not unusual to see decotora painted in this fashion. The owner has likely chosen to emblazon their images out of a sense of appreciation or reverence as a fan. Some drivers have explained that these images are also thought to bring good luck.