It’s nighttime in my home of Saitama City. I’m walking alongside the bypass, on my way to Donki Hote for a late-night snack. From the main road, a noise catches in my ear, faint at first, then growing louder. I groan. Here we go again…
One, two, three motorcycles come screaming down the bypass, the engines roaring (well, not roaring so much as gargling gravel) as they run through red lights, rev obnoxiously as they circle slowly at the turning, and then head back the way they came. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Bosozoku.
The word ‘Bōsōzuku’ (暴走族) literally means ‘Explosive running tribe’, and is an apt description of what it refers too: the loud motorcyclists who as a hobby ride their customized motorcyclists around town. Now that on its own isn’t too bad, but it’s the seeming obligation to cause as much noise as possible, aided by taking the mufflers that are supposed to reduce said noise in the first place. Now, I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t every biker like to give their engine a good vroom vroom now and then as they pull away? Ooh, believe me, Bosozoku are something different entirely. These guys seem hellbent on ensuring everyone within a five-mile radius hears their miserable symphony.
Phew. Okay, let’s take a step back here and try to get a bit more neutral on the topic. So, the Bosozoku have their roots in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. You have a mixture of factors: returning soldiers and pilots who were struggling to fit into a peacetime after a long military rule, a country with a newfound freedom established by American occupation, and the rise of the automobile. Bosozoku found its feet as an outlet, a thrill, a rebellion, and expression of freedom. Interestingly, although in appearance the Bosozoku may seem to have a lot in common with punk and mod subculture, while those two were firmly anti-establishment, Bosozoku seemed to be be more right-leaning, often seen trailing the old imperial flag of Japan in its wake. It may seem ironic that such an act of rebellion and sticking-it-to-the-man would proudly wave an icon that, as far as World War Two is concerned, represents the exact opposite of that. If be lying if I said I understood it myself, but my theory is that it could be seen as a reaction against American occupation, but I’m not sure if the times align on that.
As all timely movements do, Bosozoku today are well beyond these roots. The modern Bosozoku are usually comprised of that other rebellious group: teenagers, who aren’t yet old enough to ride a car but may be able to ride a motorcycle or moped. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the properly dangerous Bosozoku teams who genuinely harass the people and property they pass, but frankly that’s scant comfort for my poor eardrums.
Look, as someone who has worked with not just Japanese teens but with folk of all ages, I get it. Sometimes life and work in Japan is crushingly stressful. And as I mentioned in my Y is for Yankees post, I’m actually all for public displays of anti-establishment: a healthy amount is exactly why Japan needs more of. But really, can it not be something else? Something that doesn’t sound like a swarm of angry hairdryer a at one in the morning? I mean, come on: you’re not relieving stress, you’re just offloading it onto poor suckers like me who just want to walk to go and buy their wasabi-flavoured snacks in peace.
Bosozoku numbers have been in terminal decline for a few years now, and while I would normally lament the decline of most subcultures for the variety and spice they bring to the table of a country’s spread, this one will not be missed.