Remember password

eng / rus

Bosozoku "speed tribes"(eng)

By Jamie Morris


Hazuki takes a drag from his menthol cigarette, revealing a severed pinky finger. His tanned face and dyed blonde hair would suggest he's a surfer, but the stone-washed jeans and leather jacket are more like a rocker. Years ago, as a teenager with punch-permed curls and straddling his decked-out motorbike, he couldn't have been mistaken for anything but a "bosozoku" ­— which he was, and a proud one at that.

"They drove into the schoolyard," Hazuki recalls of his first encounter with the bosozoku, sometimes called "speed tribes" in English, gangs of young bikers known for their elaborate coats and deafening rides, on which they ruled the midnight streets. "I thought they were so cool," he adds, grinning.

The style and attitude of the bosozoku is captured in the photographs of Masayuki Yoshinaga. "Strictly speaking, they don't represent Japanese values like 'wabisabi' (elegant simplicity)," says Yoshinaga, a photographer who has made a career out of shooting groups on the fringes of society. "But in their minds, they are like samurai — there is no tomorrow."

Yoshinaga says that in his photos he tries to remind society of the bosozoku's teenage innocence, instead of the aggression and delinquency with which they are normally associated.

In video footage from his old "boso" days, Hazuki is a rebellious and fresh-faced teenager. Now, in person, his short chiseled body is covered in yakuza tattoos, partly visible through his opened collar. We are filming in a small park in Funabashi for a documentary I’m making about the bosozoku. The presence of the cameras attracts the interest of some police officers, but Hazuki efficiently shoos them away. "The bosozoku are finished," he laments, "but I'm trying to keep the tradition alive."

Once a member of Specter, a Chiba-based bosozoku group during the climactic late '80s, he is a biking legend turned OB. The letters OB stand for "Old Boy" and refer to former bosozoku members who associate with active groups. Hazuki still mentors current members as a "sempai" (senior) while training as an amateur kickboxer, his "day job." The artwork on his body shines vibrantly during kickboxing sessions and adds flavor to his ring persona. Membership at all-time low

Presently, two of Hazuki's "kohai" (juniors) are serving time in juvenile correctional facilities for violating traffic ordinances specifically designed to rid Japan of the bosozoku. Membership in these gangs is at an all-time low as the result of the successful crackdown. The police are targeting not only unlicensed riders of modified bikes but also media that cover their runs. It's a gradual campaign, including anti-boso public relations and legislation that many in Japan feel is long overdue.

In the mid-1950s, a new type of biker gang emerged in Japan. It was usually referred to as "kaminari zoku," thunder tribes, named for their loud bikes and unruly cruising. There is scant consensus on the beginnings of these biker gangs in Japan, but some theorize that the originators were ex-kamikaze pilots who weren't "blessed" with the opportunity to die for the emperor, and thus longed to regain the thrill of riding in formation. Others emphasize the importance of American gangs, as seen in films such as "The Wild Bunch," starring Marlon Brando, as a model for these Japanese bikers.

Ikuya Sato, author of "Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan" and an ethnologist at Hitotsubashi University, argues that the bosozoku's origins were more likely a combination of the two, and also factors in Japan's budding wealth. Sato wrote his doctoral thesis on the bosozoku after encountering them during visits to juvenile detention facilities. During his research among the gangs of Kyoto, he discovered the importance of "play" — the theatrical aspect of the bosozoku trying to embody what he calls the "Saturday night hero."Term 'bosozoku' created by media in 1972

The term bosozoku was created by the media in June 1972. While reporting on a gang fight involving bikers in front of a train station in Toyama, a local television station from Nagoya combined boso with zoku. The bo from boso contains the nuance of violence, as in boryokudan or gangster), a term also used for the yakuza. In this way, the real pun in bosozoku can only be fully appreciated through its written characters.

By coining the term, the media spawned a new subculture in print and ignited the imaginations of youngsters seeking thrills outside the rigid school system. The biker gangs adopted the word to define themselves in a similar way to how the "punk" and later "grunge" movements embraced their own media-created labels. The mass media's relationship with the bosozoku was symbiotic, as it simultaneously sensationalized and vilified these attention-hungry teenagers.

For over 30 years, the news media gave prominent coverage to the bosozoku’s noisy bike runs and occasional violence. Giving them the limelight was a way to build them up and knock them down as they became easy targets— "folk devils," according to Sato — for a society increasingly concerned about rising crime and delinquency. "The bosozoku are very visible and also very loud," says Sato in an interview, "while domestic abuse and other crimes are invisible."

Encouraged by the media, the bosozoku "run" — effectively a parade of hundreds of bikes revving at earsplitting levels — allowed the bikers to assume a role as rogue characters. In Sato's view, the street was the "stage," the route the "script," and the "costumes" were their "tokkofuku," or battle uniforms, of retro pilot boots, long overcoats and matching pants. The uniform originated in the mid-1970s and was influenced by both kamikaze and old U.S. Navy uniforms. It presented them as more than just a collection of biker punks; they became a burgeoning symbol of youth angst.

The kanji characters used on "tokkofuku" retain some of their original meaning by typically featuring themes of honor and battle, but often represent entirely different phonics and expressions. Sometimes even English names are used, as in the case of Hazuki’s group, Specter, meaning ghost. Black Emperor, once the most influential and infamous bosozoku clan, used a black Nazi-style swastika, but borrowed the font for its name from the cover of the Santana album "Black Magic Woman."Symbols used for shock value rather than politics

The use of such symbols as the swastika, hinomaru (rising sun) or imperial chrysanthemum together with their in-your-face attitude would suggest a right-wing political agenda. In fact, apart from some shared symbols and a propensity to make a lot of noise, there is very little evidence of direct alliances between bosozoku and the "uyoku" groups in the black vans. The symbols, used to attract attention, are are for shock value more than anything else.

The bosozoku's ability to intimidate makes them an attractive recruiting ground for the yakuza. Nineteen-year-old Ryo, the leader of a bosozoku "team" in Nagoya, tells me proudly that next he will become a gangster. Wearing cheap sunglasses, he resembles an actor about to go on stage rather than a mobster. He even hides his "tokkofuku" in a bag when entering the karaoke bar where we speak.

Later, he reveals that members of his team pay up to 20,000 yen each just to have drinks with the yakuza clan they want to join. The police estimate that the number of bosozoku who pay protection money has more than doubled since 1999, making them a useful source of income for the yakuza. This may be one reason why police action against the bosozoku is at an all-time high.

Not all bosozoku have aspirations of joining the yakuza, though. Makoto, a Yokohama OB who formed a group of 500 bikers into the "Yokohama Rengo" (Yokohama Alliance) five years ago, clearly resembles Hazuki. He also has a truncated pinky, and plenty of "ink." The yakuza-style tattoos covering his arms beguile the fact that Makoto actually owns a flower shop. "I know nothing about flowers though," he says.

Makoto claims that he is anti-yakuza and always has been. Anti-yakuza except, perhaps, for the one day he was a yakuza. It's also the day he cut off half his finger.

Makoto reminisces of when his "kohai" was taken prisoner by a local yakuza clan as part of a plan to enlist the young man into their army of foot soldiers. Makoto successfully pled for the boy's release, the condition being that he himself joined the mob. He accepted their terms, but quit on his first day. The severed finger, which symbolizes "seppuku" (ritual suicide for atonement), allowed the clan to save face while preserving Makoto's own honor.

After Makoto's team broke up following a gang fight in which one man was killed, he eventually formed an alliance to foster peace among bikers. Ironically, he's currently in jail for assaulting one of his own employees, who allegedly did drugs against his wishes.Police appear soft on bike gangs

When it comes to the police, most people scoff at their handling of the bike gangs, which looks more like a game of "cops and robbers" than an actual crackdown.

Susumu Mito of the National Police Agency's traffic division, and a former member of a bosozoku task force, defends their tactics. "It's difficult to stop the bikes forcefully without the riders getting hurt," he says, "so we video and photograph them during the runs to watch for more serious crimes." Criminalizing specific aspects of the bosozoku is a strategy to prevent the bikers turning to more serious crimes or joining the yakuza.

But despite the cynicism, the sharp decline in bosozoku numbers suggests that the police strategy has worked. The heyday of these once-defiant teenagers who ruled the streets at night is long gone. Instead, a new breed of biker — one that claims to play by the rules — has emerged.

"Kyushakai" are old biker-boy clubs. Their rides look similar to boso bikes, but their owners say they comply with modification laws and obey the rules of the road. "The police are gradually pushing the bosozoku into 'kyushakai' groups," says Yoshinaga. "After that, they will try to get rid of these groups as well."

Hazuki, a run organizer and rider himself, coordinates magazine photo shoots and interviews with "kyushakai" groups around Tokyo. Once enemies, many of these groups now ride together, and while they still wear club jackets and boots, the 'tokkofuku' are gone. There are other differences, too.

On the back of a decked-out ride arriving at a "kyushakai" gathering in Kanagawa sits Wendy, a blonde Canadian. Her husband, Masa, parks the machine before they dismount. Masa is an ex-bosozoku; Wendy is an English teacher.

"Most of them used to be bosozoku and I've never seen them stop at red lights before. Tonight they behaved themselves," says Wendy as we film. Later, during a "real" run, the bikers replace parts, rev up their machines and seize the streets — red lights be damned.

On day rides with the "kyushakai," their thunderous engines still attract both cheers and jeers from people as they roar past, but they are rarely reported on television. Their costumes have gone, and so has the stage. All that remains of the golden age of the bosozoku are aging bikers and their beautifully designed machines.

"I don't think everything about the bosozoku is appealing, or that all their behavior is acceptable," concludes Yoshinaga about his photographs and their subjects, "but I want to suggest that the world they created was unique."

Masayuki Yoshinaga has been photographing Japan’s subcultures for more than 10 years. He has devoted his art to painting a portrait of Japan’s fringe groups including gangsters, bike gangs, goths, right-wingers and even immigrants. His work can be seen adorning the construction barricades outside of Shinjuku station’s south exit, as well as in several published books. Most notable in the realm of bosozoku, is his book "Zoku," from which the images here were taken. An interview with Yoshinaga, bosozoku video and information about Figure8Production’s documentary project can be found at

Motorcycle gangs ride roughshod in Japan

By Peter Hadfield in Tokyo
Last Updated: 2:12pm BST 19/06/2001

JAPANESE police plan to deploy mechanised motorcycle traps to snare teenage bikers who are terrorising the country's other road users.

The sight of bosozoku gangs (literally "violent running tribes") meandering slowly across the road, aggresively revving their engines as they block any traffic that wants to pass, is now commonplace in Japan. The police detained more than 96,000 bosozoku last year for traffic violations, a 17 per cent increase from 1998.

Most gang members are high-school dropouts and delinquents who drift into the gangs in which they become recruitment targets for Japan's yakuza mafia. A few years ago the bosozoku were little more than a noisy nuisance, but recently they have been hitting the headlines for more serious crimes, from assaults to robbery and extortion.The police have had an inglorious history of combatting the gangs, who can easily outrun patrol cars if it comes to a high-speed chase. Now the police force in the southern prefecture of Fukuoka has collaborated with an engineering firm to develop a device for stopping motorcycles.

Called the MAD (Motorcycle Arresting Device), it consists of a metal ramp fitted with a sprung plate. When a motorcycle runs over the plate, the weight of the front wheel causes a trap-door to slide open in the middle and the rear wheel runs over a heavy-duty adhesive patch which sticks to its tyre. A rope attached to the patch coils around the rear wheel and brings the machine to a halt.

The police have already successfully tested the device which they hope will curb the burgeoning menace of the hundreds of motorcycle gangs that cruise Japanese roads. The bosozoku, many of whom dye their hair and wear handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses as masks, love to slip the clutch at low speed to create a high-pitched whine - as common a sound in parts of Japan as the cry of cicadas or the jingle of wind chimes.

Other drivers are advised to keep their distance. Some frustrated motorists however do try to squeeze through their ranks - and pay the price. Last month one angry lorry driver put his foot down and knocked a gang member off his motorcycle. The machine became trapped under the lorry and caught fire as it was dragged along, the driver desperately trying to escape the pursuing gang. They eventually caught up with him, dragged him out of the lorry and beat him unconscious.

Many bosozoku pay a tribute to yakuza gangs on whose turf they ride and in turn make money by extorting cash from other teenagers. In a notorious case last year a Tokyo gang ordered three boys aged 16 and 17 to obtain 120,000 yen (£750) for them. The boys committed 15 robberies to get the money, including one on a dentist who lost an eye in the attack.

In March hundreds of bosozoku invaded a festival in Hiroshima, their gang emblems emblazoned on the backs of their festival jackets. When several hundred riot police arrived, a pitched battle erupted which lasted several hours. Police estimate that the number of bosozoku gangsters has doubled in the past 10 years.

Many Japanese see them as part of a youth culture that has lost its direction after a decade of economic sluggishness and record high unemployment (the national rate is less than five per cent, but that is high by Japanese standards - and the figure for young men is even higher). Disillusioned and delinquent youths drift into the gangs where they find comradeship, an identity and excitement, say psychologists.

The police have had periodic crackdowns on the gangs with limited success and the MAD appears to be their best hope yet. Fukuoka prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, is a favourite haunt for bosozoku. According to the National Police Agency, there are 90 motorcycle gangs in the prefecture, with more than 2,000 members - three times as many as in Tokyo. The hilly, rural parts of the prefecture make it easy for bikers to evade pursuing police cars by speeding down country trails and taking short cuts through fields.

The police had a few successes with MAD earlier this year, but testing it on large numbers of motorcycle gangs required detailed planning and perfect timing. First, the police noted the most common routes used by the bosozoku around the town of Kurume, a favourite playground for bikers. Then they set up the traps. On the night of the sting police cars kept in regular radio contact as they chased motorcycle gangs and herded them towards the ambush. When the trap was sprung, about a dozen bikers were snared.

Other police forces around Japan are considering using the MAD after its successful trial, but the company that makes it is saying little. "We can't give any publicity to this new device," said a spokesman for the Japan Aircraft Manufacturing company in Yokohama. "It's supposed to be a secret. We obviously don't want the bosozoku to know too much about it.";jsessionid=3F3KE2KICJNVVQFIQMFCFFOAVCBQYIV0?xml=/news/2000/11/12/wcool12.xml


Japanese ban biker gangs

By Colin Joyce in Tokyo

Last Updated: 7:08pm BST 07/04/2002


JAPAN is cracking down on biker gangs in the latest sign of growing national impatience with youth crime.

Some of the country's biggest cities have introduced laws allowing officials to ban biker gatherings or face fines but Hiroshima has now taken the extraordinary step of introducing jail sentences of up to six months on gang members "spreading fear" in the city.

Bosozoku, or "violent running tribes" as the gangs are called in Japanese, are a haven for disaffected young men. They are a common sight in Japan, ignoring red lights as they roar through cities or blocking major roads by driving very slowly en masse. Their powerful bikes are adapted to make the maximum amount of noise. Anyone protesting is likely to have his vehicle attacked with baseball bats or be assaulted himself.

The bosozoku, perhaps best known outside Japan from the famous animated film Akira, were believed to be dying out in the early 1990s. Japanese tended to view them as little more than a noisy nuisance and gangs were allowed to run regularly along the same routes unchallenged by police.

However, tolerance has worn thin in recent years as a result of a series of violent crimes involving the gangs.

In Tokyo last year a teenager was beaten to death after being mistaken for a member of a rival gang. In Nagano, central Japan, eight gang members were imprisoned last week for abducting and battering a rival to death.

« go back
© 2006-2012. Kompost. Sitemap