Traits and history
The word bōsōzoku is also applied to motorcycle gangs, who share an interest in modifications (often illegal) for motorcycles, such as removing the mufflers so that more noise is produced. These bōsōzoku groups also engage in dangerous or reckless driving, such as weaving in traffic, not wearing motorcycle helmets, and running red lights. Another activity is shinai bōsō (市内暴走) speeding in city streets, not usually for street racing but more for thrills. With many bikes involved, the leading one is driven by the sentōsha (先頭車), the leader, who is responsible for the event and is not allowed to be overtaken. Japanese police call them Maru-Sō (police code マル走), and dispatch a police vehicle to trail any groups of bikes to prevent any possible incidents, which can include riding through suburbs at speeds of 5–10 miles an hour, creating a loud disturbance and waving imperial Japanese flags, to starting fights which can include weapons such as wooden swords, metal pipes, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails. These bōsōzoku gangs are generally composed of people under the legal adult age, which in Japan is 20 years old.
They were first seen in the 1950s as the Japanese automobile industry expanded rapidly. The first bōsōzoku were known as kaminari-zoku (雷族 "Lightning Tribes"). Many, if not most, of bōsōzoku came from a lower socioeconomic class and may have used the motorcycle gang activities as a way to express disaffection and disastisfaction with Japanese mainstream society. Many of the most hard-core bōsōzoku would become lower-ranking members of the Yakuza after turning 20 years of age.
In the 1980s and 90s, bōsōzoku would often embark on massed rides, in which up to 100 cyclists would cruise together slowly en masse down an expressway or major highway. The motorcyclists would run toll booths without stopping and would ignore police attempts to detain them. New Years Eve was a popular occasion for the massed rides. The cyclists would sometimes smash the cars and beat up any motorists or bystanders who got in the way or expressed disapproval with the cyclists' behavior.
In 2004 the Japanese government passed a revised road traffic law which gave the police more power to arrest cyclists riding recklessly in groups. With increased arrests and prosecutions, bōsōzoku participation went into decline. As of 2010, police reported that the new trend among bōsōzoku was to ride together in much smaller groups and to ride scooters instead of heavily modified motorcycles. Aichi prefecture was reported to have the highest number of riders, followed by Tokyo, Osaka, Ibaraki, and Fukuoka.
Bōsōzoku are known to modify their motorcycles in peculiar and often showy ways. A typical customized bosozoku bike usually consists of an average Japanese road bike that appears to combine elements of an American chopper style bike and a British café racer, for example: over-sized fairings like those found on café racers, raised handle bars like those on a chopper. Loud paint jobs on the fenders or the gas tanks with motifs such as flames or kamikaze style "rising sun" designs are also quite common. The bikes will often be adorned with stickers and/or flags depicting the gang's symbol or logo. There are also marked regional differences in motorcycle modifications. For example, Ibaraki bōsōzoku are known to modify their motorcycles in an extensively colorful, flashy way. They will often have three or four oversized fairings in a tower like way in a motorcycle painted in bright yellow or pink with Christmas light–like adornments. Their motorcycles were often cobbled together from stolen motorcycle parts and thus suffered from numerous break downs and maintenance problems.
Bosozoku also have a distinct style of car modification, eponymously called "bosozoku style". These cars are often modified with large exhaust pipes, bright paint, and large aero kits. Also popular are oil coolers or less commonly large turbo or supercharger intercoolers with highly polished tubing, usually mounted in a prominent position in the front bumper.
Stereotypes and media characterizations
The stereotypical bōsōzoku look is often portrayed, and even caricatured, in many forms of Japanese media such as anime, manga and films. The typical bōsōzoku member is often depicted in a uniform consisting of a jumpsuit like those worn by manual laborers or a tokkō-fuku (特攻服), a type of military issued overcoat with kanji slogans usually worn open with no shirt underneath showing off their bandaged torsos and baggy matching pants tucked inside tall boots. Tokkō-fuku in Japanese means "Special Attack Uniform", which is the uniform of the Kamikaze pilots, which in Japanese were called the "Special Attack Battalion" (特攻隊). The uniforms will most likely be adorned with militaristic slogans, patriotic rising sun patches, ancient Chinese characters, or even manji. They will also often wrap a tasuki, which is a sash tied in X around the torso, a look inspired by Japanese World War II fighter pilots. Leather jackets, often embroidered with club/gang logos, and even full leather suits are also seen as common elements of the bōsōzoku look. Among other items in the bōsōzoku attire are usually round or wrap-around sunglasses, long hachimaki headbands also with battle slogans and a pompadour hairstyle most likely akin to the greaser/rocker look or perhaps because of the hairstyle's association with yakuza thugs. The punch perm is considered a common bōsōzoku hairstyle as well. Surgical masks are also stereotypically worn by bōsōzokus perhaps to conceal their identities although these type of masks are also worn by allergy sufferers in Japan, especially during autumn. Females are also shown dressed in a similar style but dress in a more feminine manner with long and often dyed hair, high-heeled boots and excessive make-up.
In popular culture
Script error The manga and anime Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, centered around groups who shared characteristics of bōsōzoku. Also in the manga and anime Great Teacher Onizuka, the protagonist is a teacher who was formerly a bōsōzoku and several episodes feature bōsōzoku. In the tokusatsu series Gekisou Sentai Carranger, the main group of villains is the Space Bōsōzoku Bowzock, an intergalactic biker gang with no respect of traffic laws.
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- English bosozoku bike fan website
- Japanese page about the bosozoku subculture
- Website about the Bōsōzoku style cars
- Article on Japan Today about the bōsōzoku
- Metropolis magazine: Last of the Speed Tribes
- Key elements of bosozoku style