Perhaps one of the most intriguing branches of the Japanese subculture is Bosozoku, widely known as biker-gangs with violent behavior, who disregard traffic and any other imposed rules.
Also a subject much used by the mass culture such as anime, manga, and movies, the Bosozoku have come to represent a veritable myth of Japanese contemporary society.
Manga and anime usually offer romanticized versions of these rebels, transforming such characters into heroes that fight for their freedom, principles, and way of life. Nevertheless, like all romanticized versions, this one also encompasses some bits of truth, and this biker gang subculture of Japan is indeed fascinating, from many points of view. It’s highly unlikely not to be amazed in front of such characters dressed in long overcoats painted with slogans in kanji, wearing boots, baggies, surgical masks and badges.
Bosozoku are not in the least a new addition to the large and strange collection of Japanese recent trends. They first appeared in the 1950s, during the development of the Nippon automobile industry, under the name of kaminari-zoku (“thunder tribes” – named as such due to the noise they made and chaotic drive), wandering through the city at full speed and listening to music at full volume. Their origin is still disputed. Some argue that they were former kamikaze pilots who hadn’t had the opportunity to die for the emperor and wanted to feel the thrill of such rides again; while others claim that these groups had as model the American gangs seen in movies. And others, such as Ikuya Sato, consider them the outcome of both.
The Bosozoku that we know today emerged later, designating those who shared a passion for (illegal) modifications brought to their motorcycles and dangerous rides through the city at their own will and with no rules. One of their favorite activities is the shinai boso: driving at full speed and showing off in front of the passers by, on the busiest streets of Japan. Shinai boso is an action carefully prepared in advance: it starts from a certain assembly point, which can be a city park or a parking lot, where members belonging to several gangs gather at a certain time already set during the previous boso drive.
Their number may vary from ten to over one hundred, and many times they have to change the meeting point and hour in order to avoid police raids. The shinai boso is usually held at night and involves several high-risk drives of an average length of two hours, with several intermissions. The speed of such a drive, determined by factors such as traffic density and road conditions, is usually of 70 up to 100 km/h (when speed limit in the city is of 40-50 km/h). Although the route is settled beforehand, sometimes it has to be changed due to police patrols. These changes are made by the sentosha, the motorcycle in the front, ridden by the leader. When the boso drive involves only one group, the leader is that of the Bosozoku group. When several groups are involved, the leader is that of the group sponsoring the drive. Also, the group has a flag with its name on it, carried by the hatamochi (“flag holder”) motorcycle.
Due to the high level of concentration and tension necessary during a shinai boso, the intermissions become compulsory. Also, at the resting places, the members find out about traffic accidents and arrests that have occurred.
In the summer of 1972, the term Bosozoku was coined in the media. When reporting about a biker-gang fight in front of a train station in Nagoya, a local television used the term Bosozoku, combining boso with zoku, slightly hinting to yakuza violence. And once the term made its way into the media, a new subculture was born at its own right, attracting more and more youngsters willing to escape the rigidness of the system.
Jamie Morris, an American director who lives in Tokyo, has conducted an extended research in order to make an independent documentary about the Bosozoku subculture, “Sayonara Speed Tribes”, focused mainly on Hazuki, the former leader of the Narushino Specter gang. You can watch the first 10 minutes of it here.
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.