Production of the D51 began in 1936, and 1115 of the steam locomotives were produced in all. Originally intended for cargo, the D51 was also used for passenger travel on steep railroad grades because of its powerful pulling force. A favorite model, the locomotive has come to be known as the "Degoichi," a nickname that is now used to refer to steam locomotives in general.
After retirement in 1972, the D51 498 sat quietly at Gokan Station on the Joetsu Line. After undergoing repairs and restoration work at the Omiya workshop in 1988, the D51 became active as a special-use and event train, particularly on the Joetsu and Shinetsu Main Lines.