For the past 30 years (if not more), you can see a re-creation of leather jackets, greased-back pompadours, and lollipop dresses, just like something out of the movie Grease, if you go to Tokyo’s famous Yoyogi Park near the Meiji-Jingumae station, for that is where the Tokyo Rockabilly Club assembles every Sunday to pay tribute to musical heroes like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
Rockabilly has been making inroads in Japan as far back as 1955, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” dominated the charts in the country, but the current groups probably trace their origins to the 1970s, the same decade that Americans were enjoying American Graffiti and Happy Days, not to mention Grease itself.
Rockabilly, especially the form that partakes so much of the 1970s revival phase, has a cutesy edge redolent of sock hops and guys named “Potsie,” but the genre has always had an authentically rebellious edge, and the same is true of the rockabilly gangs of Yoyogi Park. This particular tribe is probably influenced by an earlier Japanese youth culture called the Kaminari zoku (“Thunder tribe”), which was considered a dangerous gang in the 1950s due to its involvement with illegally customized motorcycles, reckless driving, street racing, and fighting. The group that gathers today in Tokyo, of course, is a tourist attraction and perfectly harmless.
“Kaminari zoku” from the 1950s
Dave Barry poked fun at the rockabilly nuts of Yoyogi Park in his 1992 book Dave Barry Does Japan (1992 was a big year for interest in Japan and Japanese pop culture):
... the first thing we saw was the Bad-Ass Greasers. These were young men, maybe a dozen of them, deeply into the 1950s-American-juvenile-delinquent look, all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks and pointy black shoes. Each one had a lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut, held in place by the annual petroleum output of Kuwait. One of them had a pompadour tall enough to conceal former president Carter. [Note that the pictures here feature just such a pompadour, as well.]
One of them turned on a boom-box cassette tape of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The circle started clapping to the music; one of them got up, went to the middle of the circle, and began dancing. The dance he chose to do was—get ready for the epitome of menacing Badness—the Twist. He did it stiffly, awkwardly, looking kind of like Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd doing the wild-and-crazy-guys routine, except that he was deadly serious. So were the guys clapping in the circle. They clearly believed that they were too hip for mortal comprehension. They did not seem to sense that they might look a little silly, like a gang of Hell’s Angels that tries to terrorize a small town while wearing tutus.
Well, 2015 isn’t 1992, and the existence of a small group of people dorkily enjoying whatever they choose to enjoy flies a lot better today than it did then. Dave Barry is amused that they don’t look sufficiently “cool” or “badass,” but this is Japan, land of simulacra and, more to the point, exuberant cosplay.
Much more after the jump…