Mount Fuji

Japan's rebels rare, but hard-core 


(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of April 1, 1990)

Masao Kanise appears to be the model Japanese "salaryman." Dressed in a blue suit and well-polished black shoes, he spends his days hunched over a cluttered desk at a construction company in western Tokyo.

But at night Kanise dons a replica of a World War II kamikaze pilot's leather jacket and a rising-sun headband, cranks up his supercharged 1981 Toyota Corolla and roars off with 14 other men and women for an orgy of noise, speed, booze and sometimes violence.

Kanise is a bosozoku — one of an estimated 150,000 men and women, mostly in their 20s, who are refusing to play by the rules in a nation renowned for its rigid structure and smothering conformity.

"If I couldn't do this, I would explode," says Kanise, 26, taking a deep swig of beer as rock music explodes from the four speakers of his red and black car. "I feel so smothered by my everyday life that sometimes I think I am choking."

Nearby, commuters pouring out of a station along the Shin-Tamagawa subway line can't help casting disapproving glances at Kanise and his friends. But their scolding eyes don't linger and they don't dare give voice to their obvious loathing.

It is not wise to engage in conversation about proper dress and decorum with bosozoku, a word meaning violent running tribes.

Last summer Masahiro Yoshino, 56, a highly respected journalist with the Mainichi newspaper, chastised a noisy group of bosozoku gathered outside a commuter station in Yokohama. He was kicked and beaten to death in view of his wife and dozens of witnesses.

Last month, as two men were convicted of Yoshino's murder, the National Police reported the latest statistics on the bosozoku: In 1989 there were 107,889 arrests in Japan for incidents of violence and disturbing the peace, a 22 percent increase over the previous year.

In addition, police reported 114,936 calls for assistance from people who said they were being harassed or attacked by bosozoku — a 34.7 percent increase over 1988.

"The only time I ever engage in violence is when somebody attacks me," said a bosozoku named Kendo, producing the "persuader" — a baseball bat plugged with a heavy steel rod — that he keeps under the front seat of his car.

When he isn't hanging out with Kanise and other members of the kurobara, or black rose tribe, Kendo sells bicycles in his family bicycle shop.

"In Japan people cannot stand it if you act different," Kanise added. "But I have always acted different. When I was 14, several of my classmates beat me up at least once a week because my hair was not cut properly."

The Education Ministry officially condemns the practice of ijime, or student bullying, for refusing to dress or behave like everybody else.

But some teachers tacitly encourage it as a means of keeping rebellious students in line.

"I think bosozoku are a direct result of Japan's failure to allow young people to express themselves openly and honestly," said Tokyo school psychologist Reiko Noda.

Adds Kanise: "Now it is my turn to fight back against such a society."

Fighting back consists of driving 100 m.p.h. through residential areas at 3 a.m. in cars or on motorcycles without mufflers, hanging out at all-night convenience stores and commuter railway stations, and accosting men and women who commute two hours each way to work each day.

"Baka mitai (you look stupid)," jeers Kendo as a group of inebriated office workers move toward the taxis lined up outside the station. The five tipsy men say nothing and continue meekly on their way.

"Yowa-mushi (you pathetic weaklings)," Kendo says.

Sometimes bosozoku solicit money from passersby. And sometimes that process turns nasty.

Two years ago in Nagoya, several bosozoku tortured a man and repeatedly raped his girlfriend in a park after the couple refused to give them money.

Police said the bosozoku tied a rope around the man's neck and crushed his windpipe during a tug-of-war between opposing gang members.

The bosozoku have been around since the early 1960s. Then they traveled in packs of 50 to 100 called kaminara-zoku or sahkitto-zoku, thunder or circuit tribes, and most spent their time racing up and down highways with unmuffled cars and motorcycles.

Today smaller groups with names like Black Emperor, Killer Alliance and Death Lovers prowl the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo.

"The big groups have disappeared and so have the strong identities bosozoku used to have for one group or the other," said Masayuki Tamura, criminal psychologist and senior researcher for the National Research Institute of Police Science. "Today they are more like ronin (masterless samurai).

"Today's bosozoku lack all sympathy for the pain and discomfort they inflict on others. I think that comes from the fact that in Japan children . . never get a chance to play with other children, to develop important human relationships at an early age, and they reach adulthood never having learned how to empathize with other human beings."

"We aren't looking for trouble, but we are looking for excitement," says Yumiko, 22, her razor blade earrings glistening in the fluorescent lights of the commuter station.

"Japan is such a boring place," adds Yumiko, a sales clerk for a department store chain. "If it weren't for us, everybody would go to sleep."

The authorities, however, are cracking down. Late last summer, an amendment to a national traffic law went into effect requiring all cars and motorcycles to be equipped with mufflers. And police routinely sweep through areas haunted by bosozoku.

But many bosozoku still ignore the amendment.

"It is my right to make noise," says Kendo. "It's the one thing I can do in this country that gives me a voice."

Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.