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Hey Mr. Trainman

by Janet Ashby

A new best seller has appeared, bringing an old-fashioned love story into the digital age. “Densha Otoko (Trainman),” whose author writes under the pseudonym Nakano Hitori, is the saga of the romance of a 22-year-old otaku, the “Trainman,” with “Miss Hermes,” an attractive young woman he saves from the unwelcome attentions of a drunk on a train on his way home from Akihabara (Tokyo’s otaku Mecca).

This story first came to public attention as postings from March through May this year on a message board on the Web site 2 Channel (Nichanneru) in which Trainman asked for and received advice from fellow geeks on how to approach Miss Hermes. These postings from Trainman reporting on the progress of his new relationship, and of encouragement from hundreds of anonymous well-wishers, were published in book-form by Shinchosha last month, selling over 260,000 copies in three weeks.

The tale of Trainman’s transformation from a hapless geek to a self-confident young man in a relationship with an actual real-life young woman is indeed heartwarming. In his first posting he tells of his chance encounter in the train; two days later he receives a set of Hermes teacups from her as a thank-you gift and obsesses online on whether or not to telephone her and ask for a date. Finally he plucks up the courage to call her and they agree to meet for dinner — his first ever date with a woman.

With the advice of his online supporters, he gets a stylish new haircut, buys new clothes, and decides to get contact lenses. They have another dinner date, at which a friend of hers checks him out, and start exchanging cell-phone messages daily. In April they have tea together at her home using the gift teacups and in May he goes shopping with her for a computer.

Later that day in a park he confesses his feelings to her and she reveals that she returns them, culminating in a happy ending for Trainman and Miss Hermes, which is greeted online with a wave of rapturous pictograms and congratulatory messages.

Well, I must admit to mixed feelings about this book. While the story captures well the fumblings and anxieties of first love, isn’t it a betrayal to be posting the details of one’s dates online? And while the Japanese value being innocent and sunao (naively open), isn’t there something odd about a 22-year-old man being so utterly clueless? Finally, the whole story seems too good to be true — reportedly there is speculation on the Web that it might be an elaborate hoax.

Rather than a mischievous or malicious trick, however, the book often felt to me like an otaku wish-fulfillment fantasy: Someday I will magically meet Miss Right, rescue her like a knight on a white horse, be transformed into Mr. Right, and we will live happily ever after. The reaction of Miss Hermes when Trainman belatedly shows her the log of his postings about their private affairs was particularly unbelievable to me. Far from being hurt or angry, she is impressed by what good friends he has!

Then again, perhaps such a reaction is due to my being from an analog generation, growing up only with television and land-line phones. In fact, an article in Spa (Sept. 7) informs us of digital gaps even between those in their 20s. Twenty-eight-year-olds are the pocket-paper generation; they tend to write long, letter-style e-mails. Twenty-four-year-olds were raised on cell phones (but during the transition period to broadband Net access), while 20-year-olds have only known fixed-fee, broadband access to the Net.

Not surprisingly, there is friction at work between older workers and those under 25. Younger workers think nothing of writing messages in a very informal style and of sending Yahoo electronic Christmas cards when asked to write nengajo (New Year cards). They may have Net skills, but they lack the ability to realize that not all clients share their attitude to cell-phone messaging, which they find as natural as breathing.

One 35-year-old told Spa! magazine that after he complained about the company while out drinking with an underling he was shocked to see the underling had posted those complaints in his Web diary. A 23-year-old was asked by a senpai to investigate something and told the senpai to “Google it” — he innocently asked Spa! if that was the wrong thing to do.

Lovers are not immune from this digital gap. A 26-year-old woman complains that her boyfriend, three years younger, is always messaging her at work and if she doesn’t respond within 15 minutes he will call to see if she is OK. A 29-year-old man says his 23-year-old girlfriend wondered if he was angry when he ended his sentences with a period instead of “emoticons.”

Spa! reports that it is now not unusual for lovers to message each other 100 times a day, greeting each other in the morning, exchanging their thoughts on a TV show they are both watching, telling each other when they are going to take a bath or what they are having for dinner. With all these messages, they sometimes find themselves with not much to talk about when they are actually together in person.

When faced with this new Net generation it is undoubtedly reassuring for older Japanese to see in the “Trainman” story that some things never change — the thrill of holding hands for the first time, the excitement of a loving glance, the relief of finding that one’s feelings are returned.