OVERVIEW OF BŌSŌZOKU
Bōsōzoku, or “violent running tribe,” is a Japanese subculture that revolves around speed, thrills, and extreme customization of motorcycles or cars. This delinquent subculture originated in the 1950s when young kamikaze pilots came back from World War II. Having expected to die for their country, they were unable to cope with the sudden mundanity of everyday life upon returning home (Sato 1982). Looking to replace the militaristic aspects of camaraderie, danger, and excitement, they took inspiration from Western movies such as Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and created motorcycle gangs that would go around streets at night on “high-speed, high-noise, and high-risk rides, chased by police” (De Vere 2014; Kersten 1993: 278).
As the kamikaze generation aged, these motorcycle gangs known as kaminari zoku (“thunder tribes” due to the loud noise their vehicles made) eventually came to be replaced by another, more tradition-focused group of discontented youth. The media dubbed this newer version of kaminari zoku “bōsōzoku” after a series of riots caused by group “runs” brought the bikers’ dangerous driving habits to their attention (Sato 1991). (“Runs” are large gatherings of bōsōzoku in which they take complete control of the roads by blocking traffic, driving recklessly, and simply being an intimidating presence). The subculture quickly adopted the title after it was coined, perhaps due to its “cool” connotations of violence and speed.
The bōsōzoku subculture consists mainly of working-class, male adolescents from the ages of 17 to 20 at which point most bōsōzoku stop participating (Greenfield 1994). These youth and their parents typically have little education; many members drop out of high school (Sato 1991). Although bōsōzoku is male-dominated, there are female members in addition to all-female groups. All-female bōsōzoku groups typically form due to members having dated male bōsōzoku and deciding to create a space where they can ride their own bikes (Vocativ 2013). Despite their presence within the subculture, however, there seems to be very little scholarly literature dedicated to female bōsōzoku members.
The recognized uniform of bōsōzoku is the tokkōfuku, a modified working clothes version of WWII kamikaze pilot uniforms embroidered with the specific bōsōzoku group name on the back, nationalist phrases, and stitched on nationalist symbols like the Rising Sun flag (Osaki 2018). Other aspects of bōsōzoku styles include greaseresque hairstyles, dokajan (jumpers worn by construction workers), sentofuku (overalls originating from right-wing organizations), jimbei (summer clothes), flu masks (to prevent recognition by the police), group flags, lighters, and matchboxes (Sato 1991: 63-65). When driving, bōsōzoku tend to avoid wearing any protective gear as it adds an extra thrill to the ride (Sato 1982).
Bōsōzoku’s modified vehicles, or kaizōsha, are made to be fast, loud, and showy. Modified motorcycles may have extra tall seats, custom frames, inward bent handles, colorful paint-jobs, and, most importantly, shugo (“a multiple-tube header and a single collector pipe connected with a muffler”) from which a very forceful sound is created (Sato 1991: 46). Modified cars are customized to have the appearance of an exaggerated race-car or low-rider with tail-fins, skirts, airfoils, and/or flashing lights. The sheer number of flamboyant customizations, ironically, do not make bōsōzoku vehicles faster as much as they give them the appearance of speed.
Unlike most delinquent groups in Japan, bōsōzoku had a surprisingly high sense of morality and held a lot of traditional Japanese values. Their values were mainly modeled after bushido, or “way of the samurai”, code that was followed by the warriors of feudal Japan. According to Nitobe (1908), bushido code contains the following eight basic virtues:
- Rectitude–doing things for right, morally informed reasons
- Courage–putting oneself at risk for a worthy cause
- Benevolence–causing one no greater harm than what is necessary
- Politeness–regard for the feelings of others and manners in the face of authority
- Sincerity–to lie to protect oneself is to be cowardly
- Honor–protecting one’s own worth
- Loyalty–dedication to one’s self or group
- Self-control–being able to exert stoicism no matter the situation
The virtues of honor and loyalty were perhaps the biggest influence on bōsōzoku mentality as members were incredibly dedicated to their gangs and willing to do whatever it took to protect their dignity.
Due to their fierce loyalty and sense of honor, the bōsōzoku lifestyle could be very dangerous beyond their reckless driving. Rivalries between different groups were common and bloody. If they weren’t careful, bōsōzoku might be kidnapped or jumped by rivals, have their tokkōfuku stolen, and be beaten or killed (VICE 2015). Therefore, it was standard practice for members to keep a knife, pipe, or some other weapon on them at all times. Members might also get involved with organized crime by running drugs, guns, and other such goods for yakuza, Japan’s mafia (Greenfield 1994). These deliveries could lead to a whole different level of danger if they did not stick strictly to business. Of course, the bōsōzoku subculture was not all violence and danger. In moments of relative peace, bōsōzoku might be found skipping school, playing cards, and smoking, drinking, or hanging out at fast food restaurants or bars (Greenfield 1994). The topic of vehicles would often enter idle conversation through comparisons of different vehicle models, talk of customizations, and bragging about one’s own set of wheels (Sato 1991).
While this subculture once dominated the roads with their large numbers of customized motorcycles and cars, bōsōzoku has been fading in recent years. According to the National Police Agency of Japan, bōsōzoku numbers reached their peak in 1982 with 42,510 known members but have since dropped with “a record low of 6,771 in 2015” (Osaki 2016). Out of the variety of factors that may have contributed to this sharp decline in bōsōzoku participation, I believe economic turmoil and an increase in punishment of traffic crimes had the greatest effects. Japan experienced some of its worst economic troubles during the 1990s in what is often referred to as the “Lost Decade” (Yoshino & Taghizadeh-Hesary 2015).
During this time, GDP and real wages fell, unemployment increased, and economic uncertainty rose among the population (Yoshino & Taghizadeh-Hesary 2015). As a result of this economic stagnation, it is likely that bōsōzoku participants and would-be participants—already lacking the financial stability of the upper classes—felt they would not be able to afford the major vehicle customizations and pricey tokkōfuku uniform. Consequently, membership started to fall.
The decrease in membership might additionally be explained by law enforcement’s crackdown on the bōsōzoku. Before 2004, police were lenient for the most part in letting bōsōzoku go on their runs and would only make arrests when things got too out of control. However, their level of tolerance plummeted after the revision of Japan’s Road Traffic Law in 2004 which included hefty fines for reckless driving and “enabled police to arrest bosozoku motorcyclists on the spot” simply for being recognized as bōsōzoku (Johnson 2007: 388-389; Vocativ 2013). With the legal stakes heightened, many bōsōzoku members likely just decided that the subculture wasn’t worth the risk anymore. These days, bōsōzoku is an endangered species existing more in people’s memories than within reality itself. Soon memories might be all that remains of Japan’s violent running tribes.
THEORY OF PLAY
Bōsōzoku was not originally about play: early generations of bōsōzoku were mostly formed in response to a perceived loss of traditional values in post-WWII Japan. However, this attitude changed over time. Now the bōsōzoku scene is full of bored, discontented youth seeking some sort of thrill to spice up their lives. Their small neighborhoods usually do not have much to offer them in the way of youthful hang out spots, so they take to the roads in the search for excitement. The illegal bike customizations, disturbance of the peace, and all the thrills that come from being in a delinquent group are simply an act of play. As a result of participants’ playful re-imaginings of delinquency and deviancy, “deviant values may be temporarily neutralized and ignored, and the co-opted sacredness in deviant values may be accentuated” (Sato 1982: 76). This is not to say that bōsōzoku participants simply fail to realize that what they are doing is deviant and wrong by society’s standards. Rather, the fulfillment they gain from the subculture “derives from intrinsic pleasure in delinquent acts, or intrinsic rewards in play elements in the delinquency” (Sato 1982: 75). In other words, swerving on roads, getting into fights, blocking traffic, and running from the police is fun for bōsōzoku because it is deviant. For them, deviancy is play.
COMMODIFICATION, DIFFUSION, & DEFUSION
Commodification is the process by which objects, symbols, styles, and meanings from a subculture are turned into products for financial gain. The mass-production of bōsōzoku caricatures in anime, manga, and games, fashionable tokkōfuku, and bōsōzoku-style car or motorcycle customizations are a few examples of how bōsōzoku came to be marketed. Widespread consumption of bōsōzoku styles and symbols as common products led to defusion, a process “wherein subcultures lose their shock value, their resistance potential, and become marketing tools” (Haenfler 2014: 97). Because only the stylistic aspects of bōsōzoku were reproduced, the meanings attached to bōsōzoku symbols eventually became “obsolete” (Sato 1991: 99). The reason it was so easy for bōsōzoku to become commodified, diffused, and defused is that it partly originated in pop culture; the name of the subculture itself was created by the media (Sato 1991). It was only a matter of time before the forces that created bōsōzoku led to its dilution. The reproduction of bōsōzoku led their subcultural symbols and practices to “seem less rebellious, less challenging, and less ‘exclusive.’ The character image of the bōsōzoku lost its ‘aura’ when it was reproduced repeatedly” (Sato 1991: 100). Bōsōzoku was no longer a fearsome biker culture wreaking havoc in the streets; rather, they were a fad “displayed by the fashionable among their peers” (Sato 1991: 99).
Page by Antonix Davis
MANGA & ANIME
Otomo, Katsuhiro. 1982. Akira. Kodansha Comics.
A sci-fi, action manga—later adapted into a popular film—about a bōsōzoku gang leader and his newly psychic friend as they fight against a secret organization. Media in which bōsōzoku were cast as the heroes may have been partly responsible for an increased interest in membership during the peak of the subculture.
Fujisawa, Toru. 1990. GTO: The Early Years. Vertical, Inc.
Alternatively known as Shonan Junai Gumi, this manga series follows a bōsōzoku duo as they attempt to become mature adults and lose their virginity in the process.
Takemoto, Novala & Yukio Kanesada. 2006. Kamikaze Girls. Viz Media.
Manga adaptation from a cult-classic novel about the friendship between a female bōsōzoku and a girl from the Lolita subculture as they go through their lives in a sleepy, rural town. Later made into a live-action movie.
God Speed You! Black Emperor (Mitsuo Yanagimachi 1979)
Black and white Japanese documentary following members of the bōsōzoku group called Black Emperor as one young member deals with the aftermath of being arrested.
Bosozoku Girls of Japan (Vocativ 2013)
Short documentary about how some women come to be bōsōzoku members and the general relationship between bōsōzoku and law enforcement.
Revisiting the Glory Days With One of Japan’s Most Violent Biker Gangs (VICE 2015)
An ex-bōsōzoku leader describes the inner workings of his gang, Specter, and the violent danger that came with being a member. Features clips of bōsōzoku in action.
Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo (Warner Bros. Animation 2006)
Bōsōzoku has found its way into much of popular media, as evidenced by the Teen Titans movie scene in which Robin ends up fighting and defeating a bar full of bōsōzoku members.
Hot Road (Shochiku Co., Ltd. 2014)
Romance movie based off a manga series about a male bōsōzoku member and a girl with a troubled home life.
Nino Rota—Love Theme from the Godfather (1972)
Although The Godfather itself has no obvious ties to the subculture, bōsōzoku members enjoyed this song and would imitate it by using the throttle and clutch of their vehicles.
Yutaka Ozaki—Seventeen’s Map (1984)
Yukata Ozaki’s call for youth to break from the strict map Japanese society laid out for their lives resonated among the discontented youth of the bōsōzoku.
Weezer—Dope Nose (2002)
Weezer’s Dope Nose music video consists almost entirely of various bōsōzoku posing together with their specific groups, racing each other, and displaying their highly modified motorcycles.
ずっと暴走族 Japanese Bosozoku (LMS5050 2017)
Short video showing an example of a contemporary bōsōzoku run.
Greenfield, Karl Taro. 1994. Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation. New York: HarperCollins.
Ethnographic overview of various subcultures in Japan with a focus on delinquent groups such as bōsōzoku and yakuza.
Sato, Ikuya. 1991. Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan. University of Chicago Press.
Comprehensive study of the bōsōzoku scene during the 1980s focusing on both material and social aspects of the subculture.
Yoshinaga, Masayuki. 2002. Bosozoku. London: Trolley.
Large collection of photographs taken by a bōsōzoku gang member documenting runs, individual groups, and positive aspects of the subculture usually left mentioned by media.
Johnson, David T.. 2007. “Crime and Punishment in Contemporary Japan.” Crime and Justice 36(1):371-423. University of Chicago Press.
Kersten, Joachim. 1993. “Street Youths, Bosozoku, and Yakuza: Subculture Formation and Societal Reactions in Japan.” Crime & Delinquency 39(3): 277-295
Sato, Ikuya. 1982. “Crime as Play and Excitement: A Conceptual Analysis of Japanese Bosozoku (Motorcycle Gangs).” Tohoku Psychologica Folia 41(1-4):64-84
Sato, Ikuya. 1988. “Play Theory of Delinquency: Toward a General Theory of ‘Action’.” Symbolic Interaction 11:191-212.
Callahan, Kat. 2014. “The Bosozoku Are Japan’s Disappearing Rebels Without A Cause.” Jalopnik.
De Vere, Jean-Luc. 2014. “THE YANKĪ and BŌSŌZOKU: Origins and History.” Gaijin Rider, September 14.
De Vos, George A. and Keiichi Mizushima. 1967. “Organization and Social Function of Japanese Gangs: Historical Development and Modern Parallels.” Pp. 289-325 in Aspects of Social Change in Modern Japan edited by Ronald Philip Dore. Princeton University Press.
Foley, Greg E. and Andrew Luecke. 2017. “Bosozoku.” Pp. 114-115 in COOL: Style, Sound, and Subversion. New York : Rizzoli.
Nitobe, Inazo. 1908. Bushido: the Soul of Japan. 13th ed. Project Gutenberg.
Osaki, Tomohiro. 2016. “Japan’s ‘bosozoku’ bikers a vanishing rebel breed.” Japan Times, December 13.
Osaki, Tomohiro. 2018. “Worn to be Wild: Tokkōfuku combat uniforms.” Japan Times, September 9.
Yoshino, Naoyuki and Farhad Taghizadeh-Hesary. 2015. “Japan’s Lost Decade: Lessons for Other Economies.” Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku: Asian Development Bank Institute.