“I was interested in them because they were punks and they were against society.”—Kazuhiro Hazuki, Narushino Specter gang
Back in the 1970s the term bōsōzoku (or “speed tribes”) was first used to describe Japanese biker gangs that routinely fought in the streets with rival gangs and the police. Often dressed like Kamikaze pilots, the bōsōzoku wreaked havoc speeding through the streets on their illegally modified bikes, blowing through red lights, and smashing the car windows of any motorist that dared defy them with baseball bats. Foreigners were an especially favorite target of the bōsōzoku’s aggression.
Bōsōzoku biker with illegally modified bike and helmet (taken from a Japanese biker magazine)
Bōsōzoku bikers, 1970’s
Bōsōzoku biker, 1980’s
The earliest incarnation of the bōsōzoku, the kaminari zoku, appeared in the 1950’s. Not unlike their idols from the films, The Wild Ones or Rebel Without a Cause, the group was formed by the youthful and disenchanted members of Japan’s proletariat, and the gang provided a place for the emerging delinquents to call their own. A fiercely disciplined and rebellious group, the bōsōzoku once boasted more than 40,000 members. By 2003 the bōsōzoku’s numbers had dwindled to just over 7000. According to first-hand accounts from former senior members, the modern version of the bōsōzoku (known as Kyushakai) no longer embody the rebel spirit of their predecessors. In fact, some have returned to homaging their rockabilly idols by donning elaborate Riizentos, a style of pompadour synonymous with disobedience. These days many ex-bōsōzoku parade around on their bikes in non-disruptive groups and enjoy dancing, performing music and socializing in groups in Harajuku, an area well known for its outrageous fashion.
Harajuku Black Shadow dancers (ex-bōsōzoku), hanging out in Harajuku, 2008
Many factors are to blame for the demise of the traditional bosozuku. A former leader of from the Narushino Specter gang in the 90s (and one time Yakuza loan shark), Kazuhiro Hazuki recalls that the police were once content to allow the bōsōzoku to run riot and no matter how many times they were arrested, a gang member never had their license revoked. Over the years, revised traffic laws have led to a rise in the arrest and prosecution of the bōsōzoku. Some also point to the inclusion of women as bōsōzoku riders, now a common sight in Japan, and a less than robust economy (many bōsōzoku bikes can cost as much as ten grand) for the drastic reduction in the gang’s numbers.
Modern Kyushakai bikers
If this post has piqued your interest of vintage Japanese biker culture, there are several documentaries and films based on the bōsōzoku and other speed tribes in Japan, such as 1976’s God Speed You! Black Emperor, 2012’s Sayonara Speed Tribes, a short documentary that features historical perspective from the aforementioned Kazuhiro Hazuki, or the series of films from director Teruo Ishii based on the bōsōzoku that began in 1975 with, Detonation! Violent Riders. If you are a fan of Japanese anime, the story told in the cult film Akira deeply parallels the real world of the bōsōzoku in their heyday. Many images of the bōsōzoku of the past and their mind-boggling motorcycles follow.
Bōsōzoku biker, early 1970’s
More after the jump…