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The Story of Japan’s Dekotora Culture

Peek into Dekotora, the wonderful world of Japan’s wildest truck customization subculture!

Customization has been a part of car culture from the beginning. Sometimes, it’s a matter of function, seen in the invention of stock car racing when bootleggers built souped-up hot rods to outrun the cops. Sometimes, it’s out of the simple joy of creating a one-of-a-kind vehicle that expresses your personality and individualism. Where there are those with an excess of personality to express, the cars can get a bit ornate. And then, there’s the level of personality demonstrated with the weird, wild, and wonderful world of the Dekotora subculture in Japan.

“Dekotora” is a word made out of the English words “decoration” and “truck,” in much the same way that the word “Pokemon” came from a combination of “pocket” and “monsters.” Dekotora culture is all about turning your truck into something that looks like a Mardi Gras float and a slot machine at the Bellagio. This normally includes some combination of lights (including neon and ultraviolet, because why confine yourself to the visible spectrum?), superfluous pipes, emblems, stickers, and giant murals. The interior is no exception, with the driver often upholstering the whole thing in designer fabrics (Louis Vuitton seems popular), and replacing the overhead light with a functional chandelier.

The origin of dekotora is modern, though not quite as modern as you might think. From 1975-1979, Toei Studios—that’s the same movie studio behind the Power Rangers franchise—released ten “Torakku Yarō” movies. And yes, before you check the math, two of these things came out every year. The most common translation I’ve seen for the series name is “Truck Guys” or “Truck Rascals,” but I’ve been told by a Japanese speaker that a more accurate rendering is closer to “Truck Schmucks,” which is an objectively great title.

The Torakku Yarō movies have a formula: lead character Momojiro falls in love with a woman, but she’s in love with someone else, so he has to help her reunite with him. Also, there are truck races. The important part for us, and for the dekotora devotees, is that Momojiro and his sidekick Jonathan both drive ostentatious trucks.

A dekotora vehicle will cost its owner north of $100,000 to customize, and the thing is never completely done. The owner will tinker, add a new feature, replace an old one, and so on, making each truck not only totally unique but appreciably different at any point in its life. The biggest expense is the obligatory mural painted on the side of the trailer, which costs in the neighborhood of between $5000 and $9000. The murals can be of anything, from eagles, to robots, to recognizable characters, to legendary figures. The closest equivalent we have in the States are those vans from the ‘70s with wizards and barbarians on the side. I miss those vans.

Dekotora drivers aren’t content to have these moving art installations in a garage, only breaking them out for rallies and or the annual meeting in the town of Chōshi. They use them as commercial truckers would, hauling freight, clearing debris, and so on. Think about that for a second. A demolished building might be hauled away by a truck featuring a glittering light show on the grille and a painting of a giant robot along the side. That is objectively awesome.

Unfortunately, although probably expected for a subculture based on a series whose last movie came out in 1979, dekotora is on the decline. During the height of its craze, some estimates place the number of modified vehicles on the road at 45,000. Today, it’s a relatively modest 500 or so. Dekotora organizations are still active, though, using their vehicles for both work and charity, including providing disaster relief.

DealerOn has a lot in common with the dekotora drivers. It’s not just a love of vehicles, but a commitment to customization. We’re more than happy to help our customers tinker with their sites until we get it absolutely right. And then change it as soon as the customer wants it that way. A website, like a dekotora truck is never truly done, and it’s a functional, working piece of art.

A gallery of dekotora trucks:

Author Justin Robinson-Prickett

Justin Robinsion-Prickett is a content writer from Los Angeles with over a decade of experience in the auto industry under his belt. When not working, he enjoys fencing, re-editing dialogue in old movies to remove articles, and playing with his two dogs James Westphal and Dr. Kenneth Noisewater.

More posts by Justin Robinson-Prickett

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