The So-Called "Densha Otoko"

archive4

For the last six months or so, the Japanese media has been massively obsessed with Densha Otoko (“Train Man”) — the “true story” of a nerdy commuter who meets a fancy girl on a train and solicits romantic advice on the online BBS 2ch, which he successfully uses to win over said girl. (Full plot description here.) First, there was the infamous 2-ch thread itself, then that was condensed into a book. Now, there’s a feature film and a television serial on Fuji TV (with different actors portraying the characters.) There are also manga and adult video adaptions in the works.

How did a small Internet phenomena blow up into the mainstream? Well, behind the scenes, the Fuji entertainment group is doing its damnedest to make this modern tale of romance into a mass cultural boom, cashing in on every possible media format.

The tag line of the television show is “A True Love Story,” and clearly, the novel/film/program is being sold on its incredible veracity — to make all the socially-awkward Japanese otaku feel that they do indeed have a chance with CanCam girls if they all band together and dispense appropriate advice in online chat forums. The question has to be asked, however: Is any of this story actually real? The writer is anonymous, the story arc is way too perfect, and the backers are all extremely cunning and powerful. And within the context of a Japanese media constantly creating fictional “reality” entertainment for the public, the burden of proof rests squarely on the marketing juggernaut selling this ridiculous story.

Does it matter if it’s real or not? I certainly understand the quiet dismissal — it’s only a story — but if they sold this work as a fictional tale, would anyone care? “Based on a true story” is the artistic equivalent of platform shoes — providing a big boost to an otherwise weak narrative. And while an invented “true” story abuses that new false height to play with the big boys, we don’t draft artificially tall people for the basketball team.

With all this media attention, I find it odd that no one is asking to interview the real Train Man and find out the current status of his love life. Perhaps, they don’t bother to ask because they fully know that there is no “real” Train Man, and they’d rather not have the brigades of a certain advertising firm stop supplying ads because of a couple of ill-advised questions.

Perhaps there is a Train Man, and he’s just happy to have met the girl of his dreams. But I think the precedent certainly suggests the opposite, and while the seeds of doubt were apparently planted long ago, very few people in the mainstream media seem to be asking the right questions.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

41 Responses

  1. dzima Says:

    We also have:

    The Blair Witch Project: “based on a true story”

    Texas Chainsaw Massacre:”based on a true story”

    Scarface:”based on a true story”

    and so on…

  2. marxy Says:

    Right, but I think the fantasy is quite apparent with at least the first two. They all function quite well as fictional films, but would “Densha Otoko”?

  3. dzima Says:

    The fantasy is apparent for educated people. How many millions were fooled by Blair Witch (Chainsaw Massacre was confusing to quite a few as well)? I haven’t seen “Densha Otoko” but its plot sounds like pretty standard dorama affair.

  4. marxy Says:

    Yeah, but did you read any reviews of The Blair Witch Project that said it was a real documentary?

  5. Brad Says:

    Of course, we all know that while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not an actual true story, despite what John Larroquette says, the character of Leatherface is loosely based on Ed Gein.

    I have no doubt about your reading of the Densha otoko phenomenon. It seems like something cooked up by some corporations to make some money. But it also seems plausible enough to me. Do you have any links to the original 2ch threads or to the condensed versions mentioned in the Livedoor blog article? While it might not be a “true story” in the sense of it actually happening, it sounds like it could be a true story in the sense of some otaku writing about something he wanted to happen or something he daydreamed about.

  6. marxy Says:

    I’ve done very little legwork regarding “Densha Otoko” and my article was just to raise the idea that this could all be a hoax – which was claimed by Japanese tech heads right from the start. One of the theories is that a 2-ch higher-up wrote the original posts. Now whether it was a prank or a calculated Dentsu/Fuji plot, I have no proof of either, but I wonder – much like with the origin of the Kano sisters – why nobody asks these questions?

  7. pbolton Says:

    The Korean film Eopgijeogin Geunyeo (“My Sassy Girl”), which is going to be remade for the American market, has a similar theme and was very successful. Fuji want some of the pie.

  8. pbolton Says:

    That should be “Yeopgijeogin geunyeo”

  9. Brad Says:

    While I haven’t read/seen Densha otoko, I can say that what I DO know about it is nothing like My Sassy Girl, except that they meet on a train. Other than that, there’s no similarities at all. None.

  10. Chris_B Says:

    Marxy: if you havent researched this, why waste so much bile on it? Densha Otoko is an obvious twist on Cinderella. Hoax or not, none of my Japanese friends believe that events occured as portrayed in the book or the movie.

    I went to the movie with my wife and I thought it was pretty well done. The text effects looked good, I liked the usage of the “greek chorus”, especially the scene where densha-kun is sitting alone on one side of the tracks while all his supporters encourage him from the other side.

    My wife’s only complaint was not that the story was unbelievable but that it was too obviously male fantasy. There was no indication of what Hermes might have liked in densha-kun or why she was attracted to him beyond his act of kindness and his interest in her.

    I dont see any conspiracy here, just an attempt to cash in on the otaku market. No surprise since the media companies have recently become aware of the spending power of that demographic. Your bile is a good weapon, save it for the things you either have proof of or are more deserving.

  11. Momus Says:

    Here is my considered estimate of the likely veracity of each stage of this story. 0% = didn’t happen, 100% = happened.

    1. Chance encounter in the train. May have happened, or may be a figment of Trainman’s imagination. I’ll give it 50%.

    2. Saves girl from a drunk. A lot of chikkans and drunks abound on Tokyo trains, 90% likely.

    3. Receives a set of Hermes teacups from her as a thank-you gift. Japanese do give a lot of gifts, but I find this somewhat excessive. 35% likely.

    4. Obsesses online on whether or not to telephone her and ask for a date. More and more Japanese obsess online, 99% likely.

    5. Finally plucks up the courage to call her and they agree to meet for dinner — his first ever date with a woman. A 22 year-old hikikomori seems plausible to me. I myself didn’t really have a proper date until I was 21, and I left home, which is more than these hikis do. 72% likely.

    6. With the advice of his online supporters, he gets a stylish new haircut, buys new clothes, and decides to get contact lenses. I’ve seen a lot of Hair and Make salons, clothes shops and contact lens shops around Tokyo, I’ll give this 100% on the credibility scale.

    7. They have another dinner date, at which a friend of hers checks him out. Friends do tend to check you out, and are useful as chaperones if the fellow is too impatient, or conversation partners should he be tongue-tied. 87%.

    8. They start exchanging cell-phone messages daily. 10,475,630 cell-phone messages fly across Japan daily, this is 100% true, I feel.

    9. In April they have tea together at her home using the gift teacups. I smell a fish, didn’t she give the teacups to him? So what are they doing at her home? 25%.

    10. In May he goes shopping with her for a computer. May is a busy time at Sofmap, I’ll buy that at 68%.

    11. Later that day in a park he confesses his feelings to her and she reveals that she returns them. Pure otaku wish-fulfillment. This isn’t a Yon-Sama melodrama, you know! Get back to your porn sites! 25%.

    12. They kiss for the first time. Oh honestly, who would believe that? Wouldn’t the birthrate be higher if this sort of thing were so easy? 7%, and a clear sign of conspiracy and termial decline in the Japanese infrastructure.

  12. r. Says:

    you know, i was watching that kewl new movie “war of the worlds” the other day, and i was like, SO surprised when i heard that THAT was also based on a TRUE story about some DJ named h.g. wells fighting aliens back in the 1930s…

    Mark Twain: Quotes: Truth

    Most writers regard truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.

  13. r. Says:

    david should change the name of this page to “The J-Files” or something

  14. Ian Woollard Says:

    But it’s all true!

    Only the facts, characters and names have been changed to make the story more believable!

  15. marxy Says:

    Momus, I appreciate the objective analysis. I’m working out the math with regression analysis, and pretty soon I should have a more detailed, mathematical answer on Densha Otoko’s veracity.

    some DJ named h.g. wells

    I think H.G. Wells was a tech-house DJ. You’re thinking of DJ Orson Welles – the trance DJ.

  16. danny bloom Says:

    Marxy, you are 1000000% correct and good for you to call this to the big media’s attention. The Japanese media will never dish, but if you can talk to one of the reporters at the New York Times bureau in Tokyo, and they do a story, then there will be pressure for the J media to follow. Call the NYTimes people in Tokyo or write to them at reporter’s last name@nytimes.com

    this is a good story for the Times to break!

    and you are right. it is total PR made up crapola. Just like, you remember a few years ago, there was the Tokyo sports writer who wrote a book, a manual, about how to grope girls on trains? that was a total fabrication too, made up by his editor and publisher and the stupid public believed it. never never true at all. the guy has written over 20 books about HOW TO THIS and HOW TO THAT, and the CHIKAN book was just one more fib.

    Same with this Train boy. Good call on your part. Chase it down. THe media must stop lying to us!

    http://wmn.cs.ccu.edu.tw/furby/dan/Escape%20from%20your%20cubicle.htm

  17. Momus Says:

    “They’re lying to us!” “The public is stupid!” In your “moronic cynicism” you manage to insult both the fiction writers and the public who buy their fictions. You then propose a campaign to “wake up” the public to the “deceit”, to insert yourself into a perfectly consensual system, to portray yourself (as Marxy so often does) a gaijin St George come to slay yet another Japanese dragon. The trouble is that not only you outsiders from a different culture, intruding on a perfectly consensual relationship, your perspective on “the truth” is utterly naive and would be laughed out of the room by any fiction writer.

    There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. If statistics are “truths that lie”, art is, as Picasso said, “the lie that tells the truth”. In that sense the Trainman saga, with its universal themes, is a true story whether or not literal-minded dullards-turned-sleuths manage to find out exactly how much of each stage of the tale really happened and how much is embellishment demanded by story-telling convention. It’s archetypal as a boy-meets-girl story and it’s also archetypal as a fiction in the style of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, with the 2-ch crew standing in for Humphrey Bogart.

    How would it look if Japanese crusaders decided to reveal that the National Enquirer was a cynical bid to “fool” its idiot readers in America? Rise up, idiot citizens of America, against the PR lies of your so-called “newspaper”, the National Enquirer! No Japanese would be so naive, so rude, or so presumptuous.

  18. dzima Says:

    Marxy, don’t forget that “the Media” can also be read as “big business”.

  19. marxy Says:

    The problem, Momus, is that your relentless Orientalism kind of torpedos any kind of good point you may have here. For the last nine months on this blog, it’s been nothing but everything in Japan = Good, everything in America = Bad, and so if that means completely advocating lying to people in politics and culture, you’re all for it – well, if it’s the Japanese business complex and you’re all against it if it’s Bush or, godforbid, Americans chowing down on their awful folk foods like hamburgers.

    I think where your arguments lose a lot of credibility is that because you can’t understand Japanese, you are assuming that these “non-fiction” works are being obviously sold as “fiction” like a bad American tabloids. They aren’t, and you are projecting your own media literacy and critical abilities on to an environment which you literally do not understand. The things I complain about are always sold precisely on the premise of having “really happened.” And why on Earth would you assume that anybody would doubt these claims with a non-critical media and very little media literacy.

    Again we come back to the same point: Momus thinks this “no line between fiction and non-fiction” as “cultural” and I think that it’s intentionally made fuzzy for political and business interests. You have to admit that the Japanese political-business complex has made a lot of money throughout the years by manipulating consumer behavior to believe what are essentially lies. But, hey, let’s not let these terrible Enlightenment ideas of rationalism interfere with the pure Japanese society (pass the KECHAPPU for my omuraisu). How rude!

  20. marxy Says:

    By the way, the National Enquirer isn’t pure bullshit. Of course, their content is all gossip, but they have a huge team of fact-checkers and lawyers.

    And we’re not talking about tabloids in the first place! We’re talking about the most mainstream companies inventing stories and selling them as non-fiction with a totally straight-face.

  21. Chris_B Says:

    oh you mean like ABC, NBC, CBS, TBS & FOX do with all those made for TV “based on a true story” movies?

    (I assume the same thing happens elsewhere but I havent watched much TV anywhere but Japan and the USA…)

  22. r. Says:

    “you outsiders”
    how rich!
    how “i and thou” of you, nick.

  23. Momus Says:

    You have to admit that the Japanese political-business complex has made a lot of money throughout the years by manipulating consumer behavior to believe what are essentially lies.

    Could you give me some examples? Is a pair of socks with polka dots a lie? Is a genetically-modified avocado a lie? Is it a lie when it says “30% extra” on a can of dogmeat? Is Muji lying when they market “No Brand Goods” and no brand is obviously some kind of brand? Or do you mean advertising lies to you? Have you written to your local paper telling them this?

    Is the line between truth and lies meaningful when someone is trying to sell me something? Is it less or more meaningful in Japan than in America? When the tofu seller tells me her tofu is cool and delicious, do I treat that statement differently than when my girlfriend tells me she loves me or when my bank tells me I’m in overdraft? Help me here, Marxy, I’m floundering about in a sea of postmodern capitalist messages, trying to find truth! Is there truth in The Bible? Perhaps things are only true if there’s no way to test them against reality.

  24. marxy Says:

    Okay, I’m glad you wrote that because now I’m sure that we are not talking about the same thing.

    You keep assuming that I’m complaining about advertising creating fictitious images, and I’m not. Of course, that exists everywhere.

    I’m describing a systematic use of non-advertising channels of information to sell “booms” and “true stories” to a trusting mass public. “Densha Otoko” is not just a product in many formats; the media is selling it as a description of real life. And sure fictional shows also create our sense of reality, but in Japan, everything explicitly presented as “non-fiction” is generally manipulated to sell products.

    Advertisers and product manufacturers everywhere want to do this, but there are federal laws in the United States making it very difficult (although not impossible) and there is a free press with a profit-motive to expose these kind of hoaxes. In Japan, the media conglomerates make money and keep their connections by not exposing hoaxes. And at the end of the day, consumers are left with less information about how images are created.

    Perhaps my greatest problem with this fake reality technique is a Confucian one: I believe in the rectification of signs. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction creates much disorder in the cosmos.

  25. Dave Says:

    If you read the link Marxy left, there are a few comments from Japanese readers about how it’s obviously a manufactured ‘boom’, and how nothing can be done to convince people who believe in that kind of nonsense.

    (I’d write more, or leave a translation but I only understood ~70% of the comments.)

    A friend of mine was telling me that in China right now, nobody believes the government newspapers much, but they don’t believe the other newspapers either – basically if they haven’t seen it, they’re unlikely to believe it.

    So do they believe everything they see written in Japan?

  26. sss Says:

    go check out the site that kept the densha okoto logs
    http://www.geocities.co.jp/Milkyway-Aquarius/7075/trainman1.html

    the 2ch logs are believable to have occured in real time, so a bunch of people coming up with all of the comments and logs and making a book is kinda hard to believe. (the bbs and the log site was in exisitence long before the book)

    it’s possible that the trainman himself made it all up. but then when the book was published, the editor suppsedly met the guy and _seems_ credible.

    when the book was about to be published, there was some debate online about who had the rights to the work. it was simply formatting of the 2ch logs (with all the ascii art), so who actually has the rights on messages on a internet bbs?

    the book was an unexpected hit in japan, so the movie and drama followed. this part can be considered overhype, just like the korean dramas. but people are watching and moviemakers are making money, that’s that.

  27. marxy Says:

    the 2ch logs are believable to have occured in real time, so a bunch of people coming up with all of the comments and logs and making a book is kinda hard to believe. (the bbs and the log site was in exisitence long before the book)

    These logs certainly involved real people commenting on what they thought was a real story, but I still think it’s possible that they were ultimately manipulated in real time by the two authors – as the theory states. Everything’s anonymous, so how do we know that the “train man” wasn’t also commenting on his own threads.

    it’s possible that the trainman himself made it all up. but then when the book was published, the editor suppsedly met the guy and _seems_ credible

    The editor being from Shinkosha or the guy from 2-ch? Either party would have the incentive to fabricate this encounter.

    The book was an unexpected hit in japan, so the movie and drama followed.

    I think when Dentsu is backing your work, nothing is “unexpected.”

  28. dcp2 Says:

    I just finished reading Densha Otoko and the part that is unbelievable to me is that the wealthy world traveler Hermes doesn’t have a PC or Internet access at her house in the year 2004? And then all too conveniently at the end Densha-tan helps her buy a PC — JUST in time to show her the 2 Channel logs..? I don’t buy it.

  29. marxy Says:

    The idea that a Hermes-carrying OL would be computer-illiterate is very believable.

  30. merlin Says:

    I m just watching the show now, after hearing rather a lot of hype. I think it is episode 3. I cannot understand the Japanese, but I can get the general gist. I love the idea, and would love it more if it were fiction, for some reason. What a great idea: taking a bunch of net postings and turning it into a book. Damn–wish I d thought of it.
    But the show itself is pretty dumb. Yet another show that paints the pretty girl, some kind of saviour-figure, as a total bimbo … although with quite a lot of heart. Yeesh. Once again wondering when the women of this grand nation are gonna grab it by the balls and start reading their demands.
    I love the Popcorn-esque soundtrack. But the piano tinkly shite has gotta go!! These folk sure do love sentimental stuff. Would love to see a J-adaptation of 24. Lots of people standing around talking, emoting (sorta) all to the strains of tinkly piano. Beauty!

  31. jtakamura Says:

    Well, your have your points and it may be a mainly fabricated story. But who really cares? Anybody knows that movies and novels are fiction and if they are based on true stories, that’s exactly what they are. Just based, you can make up whatever you want from there. What would you accomplish by trying to clame there is a conspiracy here? Lol, any company uses marketing techniques like this. People buy into the war on Iraq, now that’s a serious issue, compared to getting a 8 dollar ticket to see this movie or watch the drama on TV for free. Instead of wasting your time thinking you’re a detective or something, you should do something more productive. This is a show for crying out loud. I also suggest you actually watch the drama as it’s pretty funny.

  32. marxy Says:

    What would you accomplish by trying to clame there is a conspiracy here? Lol, any company uses marketing techniques like this.

    I don’t think there’s much at stake with this particular example, but I do think it fits a general pattern of media hoaxes in Japan rarely being challenged.

    I do think that generally people don’t like to be lied to, no matter what the content, and the media gets a pretty good scoop when it can point out deceptions to readers, so I think it’s worth looking into the structural reasons for why Japan has a lot less investigation into claims of “reality” than other countries. I think it’s because of economic arrangements, but Momus think it’s because the Japanese are magical elves who have no relation to the social laws applicable to other countries. Anywhere in the middle of that is a safer place to be.

  33. Momus Says:

    it fits a general pattern of media hoaxes in Japan rarely being challenged

    it fits a general pattern: “Yes, my example is small, but look at the big picture, the one I sell you day in, day out. Conspiracy, deceit, decline. This small example confirms that big picture. It all fits, don’t you see?”

    of media hoaxes in Japan: “Everything in the media is true, or ought to be. That’s the basic position we start from, a general proposition. We can therefore call things which aren’t true in the media “hoaxes” without fear of tautology. It would be tautology to say “media hoaxes” if we thought truth was an irrelevant criterion for the media. All media would be a hoax, and perhaps that idea of facticity would even be understood by everybody using the word “media”: the fact that it’s not about truth, but about entertainment, not about directness but about diversion. But we reject this idea.

    in Japan: “Whether the Western media presents truth or not—and we tend to claim it does, using terms like “an independent, critical fourth estate”—we’re focusing here on how Japanese people are duped, and yet never complain. Japanese people are, as I underline day after day, naive, compliant, submissive, hoodwinked and misled by their authoritarian leaders in the government, education and media.”

    rarely being challenged: “Except on this site, on which an American challenges the Japanese liars and awakens their Japanese victims to their true victimhood, and, hopefully, to fury and anger and destruction.”

    Momus think it’s because the Japanese are magical elves who have no relation to the social laws applicable to other countries

    Momus thinks that Japanese people probably share jtakamura’s highly sensible view, expressed above:

    Anybody knows that movies and novels are fiction and if they are based on true stories, that’s exactly what they are. Just based, you can make up whatever you want from there. What would you accomplish by trying to clame there is a conspiracy here? Lol, any company uses marketing techniques like this. People buy into the war on Iraq, now that’s a serious issue, compared to getting a 8 dollar ticket to see this movie or watch the drama on TV for free. Instead of wasting your time thinking you’re a detective or something, you should do something more productive. This is a show for crying out loud. I also suggest you actually watch the drama as it’s pretty funny.

  34. Chris_B Says:

    Chris_B is more amused by “jtakamura” than by Momus. BTW, “jtakamura,” movies in Tokyo generally cost 1,800 Yen rather than $8. I hear there are cheap movies elsewhere out in the sticks of Kanagawa, but dont know for sure.

    This whole thing has been blown way out of proportion in this thread but thats no surprise when Momus starts waving his dick around and Marxy takes the bait. Nonetheless, Marxy’s original point stands, the media hyped this up as a true story and alot of money is being made on that pretense.

  35. J-san Says:

    I know some fairly cash flushed OL who have no PCs at home

  36. alex Says:

    @dcp2: a lot of people in japan only carry their cell phones because that’s all they need to converse with their friends and whatknot by either emailing or calling.

  37. Tram Man toot toot Says:

    Apparantly the “so-called” Densha Otoko sold 500 000 copies of the original log in a mere two months.

    Instead of sitting at home at the computer and writing these vague reviews, marxy, why not include yourself in the hype? Yeah, why not travel to Japan and milk the media for all it’s worth, since you seem to have quite the knowledge of “unchallenged media hoaxes in Japan”.

    Are you hurt because the producers of Densha Otoko have made a fortune? It’s a business, simply put. If you can’t beat them, join them.

  38. aussie Says:

    how hard is to track the real densha down?
    i mean just find the police report that was filed. You have the date of the event and train line it happened, it shouldnt be too hard. Only problem is it is a confidential police report.

  39. Some Otaku Says:

    Must you all be such frikkin flamers?! I jus finished watching the drama. Who really cares if it’s real or not. Personally, I believe that it is 100% real. It is the faith in this fact that allows losers and otakus like me keep hope on finding love. Besides…if you watch the drama, you’ll see the REAL Densha Otoko. They even did a whole segment where they thank him. He plays a walk on short scene as the guy who apprehends the drunk on the train. (Comment to previous post) Also, Densha Otoko brings the cups to Hermes’ house to use them for the FIRST TIME with her.

  40. Adamu Says:

    The Wikipedia article for Densha-otoko has a section on theories that it was all a hoax — and it’s pretty convincing. I mean, why on Earth wouldn’t the “real” Denshaotoko just show up?

  41. Wikiwikiwiki Says:

    Speaking of Wikipedia, anybody else noticed that it’s blowin’ up in Japan? In the last 6 months, every internet-savvy Japanese person I know has gotten hip to it. Quantified here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Wikipedia_growth.png