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Japan Rails Have Millions of Obsessed Fans

Japan Rails Have Millions of Obsessed Fans

Wednesday, 30 March, 2022 - 05:00
Train enthusiasts taking pictures of luxury charter train service Cassiopeia, hauled by a class EF81 dual-voltage electric locomotive (not seen in picture), near a railway track in Hasuda, Saitama prefecture. Photo: AFP

Japan's railway system has long inspired envy around the world, with its famed punctuality, cutting-edge technology and meticulous timetables, according to AFP.

The community of train fans encompasses a diverse group of enthusiasts including those who enjoy poring over timetables, adore and even record the rumbling sound of passing trains, focus on the boxed meals sold at trains stations, and collect small train models. But a small group is gaining surprising notoriety.

Nationwide, there were an estimated five million train fans, from casual to hardcore, in 2015, according to Nobuaki Takada, a senior consultant at Tokyo-based firm NRI Social Information System Services. But the best-known group is a tribe dubbed toritetsu, who strive to take perfect photos of approaching trains.

They have been around for decades, but in recent years, reports of trespassing and even violence at stations have turned toritetsu into the bad boys of Japanese trainspotting. Some argue the out-of-control behavior isn't entirely new, citing frenzied farewells for retiring steam locomotives in the 1960s and '70s. But recent incidents, including the harassment of a photobombing cyclist and an assault that left a teen with a fractured skull last year, have some enthusiasts worried.

"The manners have distorted the image of train photographers for sure," lamented septuagenarian Masao Oda, who has been taking train photos for about 50 years. "People now point fingers at me," said Akira Takahashi, whose fondest obsession is the EF66 electric locomotive model.

"The negative image of us now prevails... I don't want to be lumped together with some of us who are causing trouble," he noted. Ryunosuke Takagai, 19, is a university student who has been known to get up at five in the morning to document his passion and sometimes takes on part-time factory work to finance his hobby.

"I love everything about trains -- their sound, their atmosphere. That moment when you succeed in capturing the train, you'd spent hours waiting for is truly fulfilling," he said.

The increasingly raucous behavior of some toritetsu may be driven by their pursuit of the perfect photo, according to Jun Umehara, a freelance railway journalist formerly at one of Japan's top train magazines.

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