Japanese public broadcaster issues apology for calling a train a ‘train’

October 1 goes to be an enormous day for the Tadami train line, which runs from Fukushima Prefecture to Niigata Prefecture. Since being hit by heavy rainstorms in the summertime of 2011, nearly the whole line, specifically the 88.4-kilometer section between Aizu-Wakamatsu and Tadami Stations, has been shut down. Repairs are finally nearing completion, though, and after a decade-plus wait, service is about to resume firstly of next month.

Rail operator JR East has already begun test runs ahead of the general public reopening, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK was wanting to share footage of the long-awaited return of rolling stock to the road, with NHK Fukushima posting this video to its official Twitter account…

…together with this message.

“A test run event ahead of the Tadami Line’s reopening! It was a touching sight to see a train running on this section of the road, which has been shut down for 11 years.”

Seems pretty straightforward, right? And yet, NHK would soon must issue a correction and an apology for an inaccuracy within the statement. Yes, that’s the Tadami Line within the video, and yes, it’s been shut own for 11 years. Nevertheless, the vehicle shown shouldn’t be “a train,” or at the least not the type of train NHK said it was.

The Japanese word that NHK used was densha, which could not seem it should cause any form of commotion. In case you’re studying Japanese, the primary word your textbook goes to show you for “train” is densha, and that’s also more likely to be the primary entry you’ll find for “train” in an English-to-Japanese dictionary. But while all densha are trains, not all trains are densha. Let’s take a take a look at the kanji characters densha is written with.

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We’ll start with the second character. 車 is read as sha and originally means “cart,” but in modern contexts may also mean “automotive,” each by way of an automobile and a train automotive, so there’s no problem there. The primary kanji, though, 電/den, means “electricity,” and so the word densha refers specifically to a train that runs on electricity.

The issue, though, is that the train seen running on the Tadami Line in NHK’s video isn’t electric. It’s diesel, and so it’s not a densha, but a ressha, a word that could be used for trains of any type.

▼ Densha (top) and ressha (bottom). Ressha’s kanji translate literally as “column automotive.”

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Shortly after posting the video, the thread was flooded with responses from rail fans rapidly mentioning the wrong terminology.

“Densha?????

“In order that’s a densha, huh?”

“Den…sha?”

“I don’t see any power lines for electricity.”

“Wow, what a cool DENSHA!”

“Such a stunning truck.”

“To us train otaku, this looks like disparaging treatment of a diesel train.”

“That’s not a densha. The difference is as big because the one between gyudon [beef bowls] and butadon [pork bowls].”

The subsequent morning, NHK tweeted an apology.

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“In our tweet yesterday we should always have used the word ressha, not densha. We apologize and offer this correction.”

In NHK’s defense, densha are by far the kind of train the overwhelming majority of Japanese individuals are most acquainted with, as most commuter trains in urban/suburban areas are electric, and in casual conversation it’s not unusual for people to make use of densha as a catch-all for trains generally. Still, densha is indeed the incorrect term for the kind of train shown within the video, and given the inherent interest rail otaku were going to have within the story, it’s not a shock that they’d needle NHK for the error.

Source: Twitter/@nhk_fukushima via Otakomu

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