Japan is a country known for its reserved and respectful culture. This makes the appearance of bosozoku gangs an outlandish anomaly. In their heyday, they could be seen riding their flamboyant motorcycles up and down metropolitan streets, honking their horns and generally causing chaos. These groups used to ride without motorcycle helmets, in kamikaze jackets and with outrageous custom motorbikes. It was common to remove the mufflers from their rides in order to create as much noise as possible.
Bosozoku gangs in 1980s Japan were primarily comprised of malcontented teenagers, but the bosozoku phenomenon actually traces back to the chaotic 1950s. To determine the origins of this peculiar subculture, we need to examine what life was like in Japan during the post-WW2 allied occupation.
The socioeconomic situation in Japan during the 1950s was dire, to say the least. Unemployment was widespread, infrastructure was damaged and resources were dwindling. Out of the chaos of this period spawned a subculture called kaminari zoku, otherwise known as “thunder tribe”.
The majority of these kaminari zoku were from lower income families and felt forgotten by society. The movement represented the youth’s disaffection for the Japanese government and the country in general. In a society where they felt like outcasts, joining the thunder tribe gave these individuals a sense of purpose and more importantly, a feeling of belonging which was hard to acquire during this uncertain period. Many participants had served in the Imperial Japanese Army and felt disillusioned with the current state of society.
Despite this rough economic time, the Japanese automobile industry started to generate serious growth during the 1950s and motorcycles became more popular in the country. With American films such as the 1955 smash, Rebel Without a Cause, gaining international attention, this influenced the disaffected youth in Japan and the motorcycle gang was born!
Criminality and notoriety
During the 1970s, the term bosozoku was created after motorcycle gangs got into several skirmishes with local police forces. The approximate English translation of bosozoku is: “violent running gang”!
During the 1980s and 90s, the bosozoku movement had reached critical mass. Participation in the gangs was estimated at around 42,510 in 1982 - still a distinct minority in a country of 118 million people, but one that was creating disproportionate disturbances. Gangs would cruise en masse through metropolitan areas riding custom motorcycles, waving Imperial Japanese flags and generally causing chaos. New Years Eve was a popular date in the bosozoku diary for mass rides and pandemonium.
The gangs would often attack one another with weapons and would sometimes go to war with random bystanders who expressed any condemnation towards them. Minor criminality such as speeding through highway tollbooths and drug use was also commonplace.
The yakuza connection
Herbert Covey, in his book Street Gangs Throughout the World, argues that bosozoku gang participation increased during the mid 1990s primarily due to their connection with the famous Yakuza (Japanese organized crime syndicates). Bosozoku and yakuza criminal partnerships were said to be commonplace, and in more recent years, the cash-strapped yakuza were said to have extorted the bosozoku in exchange for protection.
As with the custom bikes which became popular in contemporary America (such as the chopper), the bosozoku sought to make their rides as outrageous as possible, usually to the detriment of the vehicle’s handleability. Many rides had custom fairings, new exhaust pipes, no mufflers to increase noise production, high tail seats, lights and of course, horns for creating gigantic disturbances.
Although the types of modifications varied from region to region, and from gang to gang, the more outrageous you could make your ride look, the better! Loud paint schemes, often with traditional Japanese cultural inspirations, were commonplace. Bright, oversized fairings stacked on top of one another were also prevalent, as bosozoku members tried to outdo one another in terms of who could be the most obnoxious.
For those looking for a truly unique ride, the bosozoku motorcycle style has actually gained some traction in the west. Custom motorcycle shops occasionally receive requests from bosozoku enthusiasts for oversized fairings and traditional Japanese paintwork in order to differentiate their rides from everyone else’s. However, many of the typical modifications are illegal in the west, so we’re unlikely to see a revival of the bosozoku any time soon!
In terms of identity and fashion, many bosozoku gangs took inspiration from traditional Japanese ideals. Revered creatures such as tigers and sharks were a strong source of inspiration for these gang members, and samurai themes were also recurring in their fashion. Perhaps these disaffected teenagers were trying to affirm their identities as ancient warriors in a rapidly modernizing world which felt alien to them! Imperial Japanese flags were often seen waving in the wind on the back of motorcycles as their riders caused mayhem on modern streets!
The attire worn by these bosozoku members was also very unique. The special attack uniforms (also known as tokko-fuku) worn by kamikaze pilots during WW2 were reappropriated and adorned with colorful writing and gang insignias. Dyed hair and baggy pants were also associated with bosozoku membership!
The last of a dying breed
As a result of a change in legislature in 2004, arrests and prosecutions increased which caused a rapid decline on bosozoku participation. Although the bosozoku phenomenon has mostly disappeared, smaller groups can still be found riding their motorcycles through certain areas in Japan such as Tokyo and Aichi prefecture. Of course, aging bosozoku members still find themselves in trouble with the law here and there, even in 2016!
This cultural relic in Japan’s colorful history is depicted in full in Vice’s excellent documentary: Revisiting the Glory Days With One of Japan’s Most Violent Biker Gangs. This is highly recommended if you want to learn about the wild hairstyles, insane fashion, customized bikes and violent acts committed by these notorious gangs.