The bōsōzoku, which are Japanese motorcycle clubs, have existed since the 1950s. Born out of post-war counterculture and an expanding automobile market, bōsōzoku riders took to the streets on heavily customized bikes to show off their social influence.
While traditionally boys' clubs, the bōsōzoku have a version of American biker "old ladies," and in recent years, the Japanese motorcycle clubs have become more inclusive through necessity - their numbers are steadily declining. Nevertheless, members of the youthful Japanese counterculture have made their presence known via #bōsōzoku on Instagram, and they continue to ride freely through the streets of Japan.
The rise and fall of the bōsōzoku motorcycle clubs document a wild history of riders who refuse to let their legacy end.
While the bōsōzoku do have a delinquent reputation in Japan, the most common complaints about these riders involve their illegally modified mufflers and tendency to disturb the peace. Members of the bōsōzoku are generally under the age of 20 and classified as teenagers looking to have fun and stick it to authority. This usually entails riders taking their loud bikes through residential areas and causing a ruckus.
However, some members allegedly move on to more organized groups, such as the Yakuza, after they turn 20.
In the early days of bōsōzoku subculture, fights were ugly. They reportedly used wooden swords, baseball bats, and even the occasional improvised explosive to intimidate the public and vandalize property. The clubs fostered a spirit of antagonism, as they were always ready for an altercation, even with the police.
Former bōsōzoku member Shotaro Nagasawa recalls, "When you're a bōsōzoku, you don't run away from fights or get scared of cops. You're game for anything. I was even ready to [perish]." However, the widespread riots popular at the advent of the bōsōzoku are a lot less common these days - when the bikers take on the police, some onlookers view the disputes more as street entertainment than actual aggression.
In Hiroshima, it's reportedly an annual event to go downtown and watch the bōsōzoku clash with cops.
The bōsōzoku claim their origins derive from a culture of post-war soldiers; they tend to display a strong sense of national pride. Their uniforms and bike modifications - especially with earlier generations - often include the Japanese imperial flag or military paraphernalia. They have a reputation for getting into confrontations - with foreigners in particular.
It's also common for a far-right nationalist group called uyoku dantai to recruit from pools of bōsōzoku members.
Bike customization aesthetics have changed drastically over the years, but in its heyday, bōsōzoku bikes were memorable, to say the least. The vehicles are infamous for having giant fairings (the colored shell around the bike's metal frame), sky-high back seats with kanji detailing, and colorful paint jobs.
Some bikes get customized to fit a particular regional variation and might feature specific symbols used to denote membership to a certain club. Some riders add vibrant lights to their bike or double up their fairings to create a distinctive look. But beyond their vehicles' physical appearance, the bōsōzoku can be identified by the sound of their unmuffled exhausts.