A part of the Japanese motorcycle subculture, Bōsōzoku are motorcycle gangs, the Japanese version of the American outlaw motorcycle clubs.
When it comes to cars and the automobile world in general, Japan has given the Western world a lot. Think Acura NSX, Nissan Skyline, Toyota Supra and, Bōsōzoku.
A part of the Japanese motorcycle subculture, Bōsōzoku are motorcycle gangs, the Japanese version of the American outlaw motorcycle clubs. Of course, when we talk about Bōsōzoku in cars, these are the hi-risers, low-riders, and hydraulic rides, Japan-style. Very OTT, and often driven by people who are very into this kind of car culture, or simply, gangs.
But the term Bōsōzoku came to be with motorcycles, and you can see a glimpse of them in the Japanese anime cult movie, Akira, that remains to be a popular viewing choice to date.
The Bōsōzoku gangs of today are not what they once were but back in the day, they were rightly called Japan’s most dangerous motorcycle gangs. Read on why…
The History & Origins Of The Bōsōzoku
The Bōsōzoku street gangs began to come around the 1950s. Much like the American outlaw motorcycle gangs that were all about the veterans returning from WWII and looking for their lost brotherhood, the Bōsōzoku members at first were the retired Japanese aviators who formed motorcycle groups called the ‘Thunder Tribe’, or kaminari zoku.
As time went on, the older members retired and these motorcycle gangs began to let in the younger crowd, from age 16 to 19, who tried to be as illegal as they could be.
Of course, the Bōsōzoku did not call themselves that and each Bōsōzoku motorcycle gang had an individual name. Much like the coinage of the “one-percenters” for the American outlaw MCs, in Japan too it was a damage-causing riot in the 70s that brought about the name, Bōsōzoku. Reporters in Japan used this word to describe the motorcycle gangs of the time and loosely translated, it means “out-of-control, speeding-vehicle tribes/gangs”.
The Bōsōzoku used to ride in large gangs, wreaking havoc where they went, indulging in riot-like violence while evading police with speedy Japanese roadsters. They would ride in large groups of 100 bikers or more, and not only got in tiffs with the law enforcement but also get violent with anyone who got in their way.
1982 was the peak for the Bōsōzoku, with over 42,000 members though since then, things have wound down.
The Bōsōzoku Motorcycles Modifications
While the American outlaw motorcycle clubs rode their Harley-Davidsons and choppers and had a distinctive and masculine style of modification, the Bōsōzoku motorcycle modifications were OTT, almost anime-like in looks.
The motorcycles were run-of-the-mill 250-400cc Japanese bikes, and they would be modified mostly for show, with modified exhausts, oversized fairings, and huge sissy-bars. Flashy and garish paint, stickers, and flags that depicted the rising sun were part and parcel of the modification, called Kaizōsha. The motorcycles could be bright pink, and yet the rider would still be considered macho. To the Japanese, these represented danger, but to the rest of the world, these were almost cartoonish.
The Bōsōzoku also dressed a certain way, wearing boilersuits or military-style jackets with bag pants, and this “uniform” was called tokkō-fuku or attack-style clothing. Emblazoned with kanji slogans, the Bōsōzoku members also wore a cloth headband called hachimaki, surgical masks, and patches of the Japanese Imperial Flag. They would wave these Imperial Flags during rides as they went about terrorizing roads and neighborhoods.
The Bōsōzoku Gang Culture
The popularity of the Bōsōzokus peaked in the ‘80s in Japan, but with the economic slowdown of the ’90s, the membership and expensive motorcycle modifications began to die a natural death. Another difference between them and the American outlaw MCs was that the Bōsōzokus were not gender-specific, and had both male and female members though the girl riders were mostly girlfriends of the male riders.
Today, the Bōsōzoku is a dying breed. This is in contrast with the American outlaw MCs, which are growing at alarming rates. One reason could be that the Bōsōzoku was never an adult-oriented group. Membership began at 16 and ended once the Bōsōzoku member reached adulthood at 20. Post-that, many of them would join the Yakuza, the organized-crime Japanese gangs as low-ranking members.
In 2013, law enforcement in Japan began to refer to the Bōsōzoku as “pseudo-yakuza” organizations, claiming that by 2011, only 500 or so of these gangs still existed.
Many also believe that the teenagers who once loved to ride with their Bōsōzoku brothers to get their kicks, now got all their violent fantasies fulfilled cheaply via video games. So this subculture could be dying because of time and technology.
Today, The Bōsōzoku Is A Mere Shadow Of Itself
Today, the Bōsōzoku is no longer the once feared gangs they were. The youngsters of the Bōsōzoku ride scooters instead of motorcycles. The few members ride in small groups and keep a rather peaceful outlook, often doing nothing more dangerous than dressing up and shouting slogans. Mostly, they just drive around alleyways and backstreets, keeping out of the way of law enforcement in their dressed-up scooters and make-believe clothes.
Many say its nothing more than a half-hearted attempt to revive something already dead and today, the Bōsōzoku is nothing more than a Japanese urban legend and exists more as fashion that an actual subculture.
Sources: TOFUGU, Jalopnik, VICE, Gentleman’sPride, TopGear