Universal Japanese Motorcycle

Bōsōzoku (literally ‘running-out-of-control (as of a vehicle) tribe’) is a Japanese youth subculture associated with customized motorcycles. The first appearance of these types of biker gangs was in the 1950s. Popularity climbed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, peaking at an estimated 42,510 members in 1982. Their numbers dropped dramatically in the 2000s with a reported number of under 7,297 members in 2012.

Bōsōzoku are known to modify their motorcycles in peculiar and showy ways, which are called ‘Kaizōsha’ (‘Modified Vehicles’). The general style of bōsōzoku bike modification appears to combine elements of an American chopper bike and a British café racer. Examples of modifications that are taken from these styles are raised handle bars like those on a chopper or over-sized fairings like those found on café racers (though bōsōzoku usually fit them much higher on the bike than their original position, and angled upwards at the front).

Bōsōzoku style traditionally involves boilersuits similar to those of manual laborers or leather military jackets with baggy pants, and tall boots. This uniform became known as the tokkō-fuku (‘special attack clothing’), which was the uniform of the Kamikaze pilots. Typical accessories to this uniform are hachimaki (a stylized headband), surgical masks, and patches displaying the Japanese Imperial Flag. Bōsōzoku members are known for taking a Japanese Road Bike and adding modifications such as over-sized fairings (outer shell), lifted handle bars shifted inwards, large seat backs, extravagant paint jobs, and modified mufflers. Bōsōzoku styles take inspiration from American choppers and greasers.

The tokkō-fuku is usually worn open with no shirt underneath, exposing their bandaged torsos and baggy, matching pants tucked inside tall boots. These tokkō-fuku uniforms are typically adorned with militaristic slogans, patriotic rising sun patches, or ancient Chinese characters. The uniform is often accompanied by a tasuki, a look inspired by Japanese World War II fighter pilots.

Leather jackets embroidered with club/gang logos, and even full leather suits are also seen as common elements of the bōsōzoku look. Other items in the bōsōzoku wardrobe usually include round sunglasses, long hachimaki headbands also with battle slogans, and a pompadour hairstyle usually attributed to either the greaser/rocker look or a look that tends to be associated with yakuza thugs. The punch perm hairstyle and Surgical masks are also considered common bōsōzoku attire.

Bōsōzoku gangs organize mass rides for speeding in city streets. By tradition, the leader (who is responsible for the event) is not allowed to be overtaken. Japanese police call them ‘Maru-Sō’ and occasionally dispatch vehicles to trail the groups of bikes to prevent possible incidents, such as riding very slowly (10-15 km/h), creating a loud disturbance while waving imperial Japanese flags, and starting fights that may include weapons (such as wooden swords, metal pipes, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails). These bōsōzoku gang members are generally between 16 and 19 years old.

They were first seen in the 1950s as the Japanese automobile industry expanded rapidly. The precursors to the bōsōzoku were known as ‘kaminari zoku’ (‘Thunder Tribe’), urban motorcyclists more akin to British rocker culture (also known as leather boys and café racers). Many, if not most, bōsōzoku members came from a lower socioeconomic class and may have used the motorcycle gang activities as a way to express disaffection and dissatisfaction with Japanese mainstream society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, bōsōzoku would often embark on massed rides, in which up to 100 bikers would cruise together slowly down an expressway or major highway. The motorcyclists would run toll booths without stopping and would ignore police attempts to detain them. New Year’s Eve was a popular occasion for the massed rides. The bikers would sometimes smash the cars and threaten or beat up any motorists or bystanders who got in the way or expressed disapproval of the bikers’ behavior.

In 2004, the Japanese government passed a revised road traffic law which gave the police more power to arrest bikers 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.

A typical customized bōsōzoku bike starts off by taking an average 250-400cc Japanese road bike, adding a shugo exhaust system (multiple tube header), squeezing the handlebars inwards (known as shibori), and adding a 3 or 4-trumpet horn- ‘sanren’ or ‘yonren,’ respectively. Loud paint schemes 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 and an abundance of lights.

Bosozoku is sometimes confused with the term ‘Kaido Racer’ or zokusha, which refer to Japanese car modification culture.


One Comment to “Bosozoku”

  1. wow, this is so interesting, i never even knew they existed –

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