Much like the motorcycle gangs that exist here in the States, from the 1950s onwards, Japan slowly formed its own version of motorcycle gang delinquents. These gangs -referred to as Bōsōzoku- gradually became infamous across japan for their ~40,000 members and traditional, counter-cultural mentality to the changing landscape of 1950s Japan.
What are Japanese Motorcycle Gangs?
The Bōsōzoku (roughly meaning the ‘out-of-control tribe’) were a youth subculture -typically aged between 16 through 20- that all had highly customized, low-riding motorcycles. These groups separated into many of their own individual gangs, with their own ideals and values, though typically sharing the same overarching theme of counter-cultural behavior and delinquency. These delinquents all typically wore military-style jackets or boilersuits as a sign that they were Bōsōzoku and paired this uniform with a headband with patches of the Japanese Imperial Flag.
These gangs would ride around different areas of Japan in numbers of the hundreds, if not thousands, and generally caused mayhem wherever they went. This involved speeding down highways and ignoring toll booths and attempted detainments by the police, as well as threatening and fighting with other drivers, motorcyclists, and bystanders who disapproved of their behavior.
Bōsōzoku were also known to target foreigners in Japan, perhaps due to their presence being evidence of a globalizing Japan that they were ideologically opposed to, and regularly used violence against them.
Bōsōzoku were also somewhat tied to the Japanese Yakuza Mafia, as many of its youthful members would later join the Yakuza once they reached 20 (the minimum age required to work for the Yakuza in the early 60s onwards), and it is evident that the Bōsōzoku had inherently strengthened the Yakuza by the time it began to decline.
The Members of Bōsōzoku
Members of Bōsōzoku had taken an influence from the rebellious nature of American delinquents -ironic considering their pro-Japan ideals- and many of the young members had greaser and mullet hairstyles that were often bleached blonde.
The majority of the members consisted of working-class teenagers, and though the majority were male at the beginning of the Bōsōzoku, by the 1980s, girlfriends of riders had begun to join alongside many rebellious women who were later labeled sukeban, a different subgroup that had their own set of aesthetics and motorcycles.
So what did the customised motorcycles of the Bōsōzoku look like? Well, in contrast to the American motorcycle clubs that rode Harley-Davidsons and classic choppers, Bōsōzoku motorcycles were modified to be extremely over the top and is probably the flashiest bike you could imagine. They typically began as local 250-500cc road bikes, sourced from Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, and Suzuki, and then underwent a complete transformation.
Once completed, the motorcycles of Bōsōzoku had very high front forks and handlebars, similar to the American chopper, alongside a low ride. The color of the motorcycle was as potent as all of the other modifications: brightly colored paint jobs accompanied by flashy stickers, flags, and symbols such as the Rising Sun were all commonplace. Furthermore, they were described as having an auditory presence as powerful as a visual one, with highly modified exhausts; the horns of gangs were also modified so that gangs almost had an audible identity – almost like a theme song!
Their outlandish look grabbed the eyes of society globally these bikes almost seemed cartoonish, and quickly became influential in pop culture such as the iconic bikes from the cult classic anime movie Akira.
The History of Japanese Motorcycle Gangs
Bōsōzoku was a societal response to a post-World War II Japan that had begun to globalize in a much grander fashion than had ever achieved in the past, leading to the formation of a generation dominated by delinquent culture.
After the second world war, living under the assumption that they would never return home, for example, kamikaze pilots assigned for a mission that was later terminated was a key factor in fuelling the post-war issues in Japan. This inherently meant that many Japanese veterans were keen to express their dissatisfaction with Japan’s government and society as a whole, and took up non-firing weapons such as wooden swords and baseball bats in order to rebel against the authority they so utterly opposed.
In the early days of the Bōsōzoku, it can be said that the influence and discipline of the war veterans had developed a form of code, not quite chivalric, but clearly not just chaotic violence without meaning. For example, early members of the Bōsōzoku were seen assisting the elderly when ‘their car had gotten stuck in the mud on the roadside’ an early interview stated. With members stating that they ‘did a lot of good things, too. It wasn’t all bad stuff. A lot of it was just our young spirit.’
However, towards the 1980s and 90s, Bōsōzoku peaked in their members, being roughly 42,000 strong according to the Japanese National Crime Units investigation; as well as this, their behavior and discipline had certainly become a shadow of their former selves. There was an increase in spontaneous violence as well as recklessness in their patrolling of highways and cities.
The Fall of Bōsōzoku
From the beginning of Japan’s ‘lost decade’, the significant economic slowdown that occurred in the 1990s led to mass unemployment and a lack of income. This meant that men of the working class membership that formed the Bōsōzoku could no longer afford the stylish customizations to their vehicles, leading to a natural decline in membership.
Further measures were taken by the Japanese government, as laws passed in the late 90s, as well as early 2000s, meant that Japanese police had full authority to treat motorcycle gangs as ‘mini-yakuza’ organizations and could arrest them in mass groups, with extremely strict prison sentences for participating in these rebellious gangs.
Contrasted to the increasing amount of American motorcycle gang membership, the number of Bōsōzoku has significantly dwindled in its members and is majorly smaller than in its prime.
Are Bōsōzoku still around today?
Today, the number of gangs has dropped to less than 5 thousand members; evidently highlighting the significant decline of the membership of these groups. For most people in Japan as well as foreigners, modern-day Bōsōzoku refrains from their iconic violent behavior to avoid imprisonment – many of them even wear helmets now. Though, the influence of these gangs on fashion, media, as well as motorcycles themselves still echoes throughout the world and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.