It would be no exaggeration to say that the majority of Japanese street fashion trends and subcultures that formed from the 1970s onwards were largely driven and characterised by women. While the likes of the lolita, gyaru, and mori girl subcultures (to name only a few) certainly have their male adherents and counterparts, most found their place in pop culture history via the female demographic – my primary focus so far whenever I’ve been discussing Japanese street fashion here on Otaku Lounge. Today however, I’d like to change things up a bit by turning my attention towards a subculture that, although picked up by some women in later years, originated in the hands of Japanese males.
Bosozoku, translating roughly into “reckless tribe” or “violent speed tribe”, is a subculture that has an immediate association with customized motorcycles and biker gangs – though not in quite the same way as these gangs might be thought of in Western terms. Overwhelmingly comprised of people under twenty (the legal age of adulthood in Japan), bosozoku are generally teenagers with a penchant for dangerous driving and a disregard for the general public. Running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, speeding in city streets (mostly for thrills rather than racing), riding extremely slowly and extremely loudly through suburbs, and starting fights have been some of the usual pastimes for bosozoku since the subculture’s formation.
Although first actively seen in the 1950s during the rapid expansion of the Japanese automobile industry (then called kaminari-zoku, or “thunder tribe”), and first coined as bosozoku in the 1970s when riots broke out between various biker groups and the police, the subculture has been traced back to the period directly following World War II, when kamikaze pilots and other veterans returned home and found themselves unable to easily assimilate back into peaceful everyday life. The realities of living under war-time rule, combined with inspiration taken from the imported greaser culture – particularly from the rock and roll image and movies like 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause – was a perfect starting point for many disaffected youths looking for an emotional outlet.
Symbols of World War II such as the imperial rising sun worn on patches and waved as flags, bandages tied in an X around the torso called tasuki (inspired by Japanese fighter pilots), military-issued overcoats called tokko-fuku (also part of the standard uniform worn by the kamikaze pilots), jumpsuits like those worn by Japanese manual laborers, baggy pants tucked into tall boots, and long headbands called hachimaki adorned with battle slogans, were therefore heavily incorporated into the traditional bosozoku look. These were typically combined with symbols of post-World War II rebellion and greaser culture including leather jackets, pompadour hairstyles, round sunglasses, impromptu weapons, and identity-concealing surgical masks (more commonly worn by those suffering from a cold or allergies). While society saw bosozoku as a nuisance and a danger, bosozoku saw themselves as striving to embody the samurai spirit of old Japan, while simultaneously rebelling against the new social order.
Bosozoku subculture reached its peak in the 1980s, and many women had also begun to advocate the style themselves by this time, dressing in similar attire and dyeing their hair, wearing large amounts of make-up, and showing off high-heeled boots. These women were often girlfriends or ex-girlfriends of male bosozoku members, plenty of whom ended up forming their own biker gangs comprised solely of other females.
By the so-called golden age of the trend in the 1980s, bosozoku were known for embarking on rides in which up to 100 bikers would cruise slowly together en masse down major city streets or highways, sometimes threatening or attacking bystanders who got in their way or otherwise expressed their disapproval. Motorcycle mufflers were frequently removed in order to purposefully create more noise, and many gang members carried makeshift weapons such as baseball bats, wooden swords, metal pipes, and Molotov cocktails. The inevitable resulting clashes between rival gangs as well as with police sometimes evolved into riots, as in Hiroshima in 1999 when approximately one thousand bosozoku fought police with rocks and Molotov cocktails for three days and nights.
First attempts by the media to outrage the public and to push the National Police Agency into further action did nothing to cap the rising numbers of bosozoku participation. To make matters worse, a significant number of bosozoku members joined the lower ranks of the yakuza upon reaching adulthood, and even when biker gang memberships began dramatically falling during the early 2000s, incidents of serious bosozoku-related crime including robbery, extortion, assault, and murder more than doubled between 1996 and 2000 according to NPA data.
However, bosozoku have been said to be a dying breed. In 2004, the Japanese government passed a revised road traffic law which gave the police more power to arrest bikers riding in groups, and bosozoku participation fell into sharp decline following increased arrests and prosecutions. The NPA announced in 2011 that gang membership had decreased to around 9000 individuals spread out over about 500 separate gangs – the lowest number since the collection of data regarding bosozoku had begun in 1975.
Police have also reported a new trend among bosozoku of riding in much smaller groups, often riding modified scooters rather than motorbikes, and today, members tend to dress in a much less stylised and flashy manner, their presence far tamer than that of their predecessors. According to former gang leaders like Hazuki Kazuhiro, traditional bosozoku culture has all but disappeared. Whether the trend will continue to die a marginalized death or morph into something else, just as many other street trends have done in the past, remains to be seen.