Matthew S. Stein
Review of Kamikaze Biker by Ikuya Sato
This book was originally intended to be a doctoral dissertation for submission to the university of Chicago. However, this grew to cover much more. Sato discusses three main areas of the phenomenon of kamikaze bikers. He first discusses the concept and culture of the bosozoku, which are the actual bikers. He then follows in the next part with the discussion of the "Yankees," which are similar to the bosozoku in almost every aspect except for the fact that they walk around instead of riding around. This is where the delinquency starts and the Yankees can continue on their path of a carefree lifestyle, or they can follow the path of the bosozoku, which is more structured but also more appealing. Sato then finishes the book with the discussion on the notion of "play" and what it means to the bosozoku and Yankees. This aspect of "play" and "fun in being evil" is very important and critical to the understanding of the Kamikaze Biker.
The bosozoku live for the road and the rush of danger. Their idea of excitement is the boso run where they race down the streets at high speeds in spite of the danger. They enjoy toying with the police, alarming pedestrians, and drawing the attentions of girls, whether itís wanted or not. Life of the bosozoku is all about speed and thrills, but they have their own unique clear-cut order and defining characteristics. The main reason for boso driving is to overcome or satisfy the need to express frustration or inferiority. Boso driving is then not an escape from pressure of life; it is more of an outlet in which these frustrations and emotions can be vented through.
The bosozokuís main activity is the shinai boso. This involves racing at extreme speeds while showing off to passersby and anyone within viewing range. The boso drive usually starts from a certain meeting point such as a park or parking lot. Here various members of a bosozoku group or various groups meet at an appointed time. The time and conditions are usually set in the previous meet or at a conference between the leaders of the groups. Obviously since this is highly illegal, they try to keep these arrangements a secret from the police but sometimes they are forced to change plans due to a leak. This is where the group leader, known as sento sha (front vehicle), takes responsibility. The front rider sets the pace of the race and no one is allowed to pass him. He carries the group flag as he rides ahead. Meanwhile, riders in the front and rear deter traffic and police so the race can continue. This structured style is key to the bosozoku as every member has a purpose and important position. In addition, it is this structure and order that sets them apart from the Yankees.
The Way of the Yankee
The Yankee is most often associated with delinquency. While all bosozoku are seen as Yankees, the reverse is not always true. Where as the bosozoku emphasize the thrills of the road, the Yankees stress the thrills of the streets.
The main features of the Yankees are their characteristic hairstyles and clothes. They usually have permanent waves with varying styles concerning length. Concerning the clothes, they are well known for their thin cardigans in black, white, and primary colors, and they usually wear a type of thin womenís sandal that makes much noise. This helps to achieve the desired effect of attracting much attention. They imitate the style of the yakuza to become more obtrusive, conspicuous, and menacing. The short permed hair, shaved eyebrows and hairlines, primary colors, and narrow belts were originally the style of the yakuza. The Yankees take pride in their appearance and also in the fact that they are intimidating. According to Sato, due to the recent commercialization of the Yankee style, it has somehow been diluted and now a sort of fashion. However, if one does not have the permed hairstyle, then he is seen as a hanger-on and not a true defiant Yankee.
When Yankees get together, they do so out of habit without a clear purpose in mind. They simply meet at a usual place and converse at great length. Sometimes they attempt to engage in more thrilling activities such as the occasional race, but since their groups are mostly unstructured, their plans usually fail due to poor coordination and lack of common interest and motivation. When they do seek action on the streets, they usually walk the streets and look for it. Common forms of action are fighting and sexual exploitation such as rape. They then use these experiences to give them stories to tell at the next gathering. It is this type of action that gives them masculinity and prestige in their groups. An interesting aspect of this group is that these violent and deviant acts are restricted by their own subculture. There is an age hierarchy that limits and restricts who can fight who, such as an older Yankee should not fight a much younger Yankee. If two Yankees have the same school and social ties, they probably will not fight as well. Concerning the sexual exploitation, this is meant to affect mostly other Yankees and thereby limiting the danger to the general public.
The dual nature of the Yankees is a critical aspect of their culture. They seek to defy popular culture and yet they conform to some social standards. While they imitate the menacing appearance of the yakuza, they also recognize how they do not imitate the yakuza style. Unlike yakuza, Yankees often wear sharply angled, dark sunglasses, which give a slight, comical look to the Yankee style. The image of the Yankee conforms to the yakuza style and at the same time conforms to the norms of the ordinary citizen. While they enjoy the menacing image, they hate the association with the yakuza. Yankees seek action and thrills and do not wish to be thought of as common thugs or punks like the yakuza. They have an idealized self-image of a thrill seeker that they wish to cultivate and maintain. As a result, many Yankees seek to become bosozoku.
The life of the bosozoku is different from Yankee life. Mostly, it is the structure and rules of the bosozoku that contrast with the lifestyle of the Yankee. However, it is the attraction of the gang activities and the thrill-seeking images that draw many Yankees to becoming bosozoku. The image of a bosozoku is that of a true thrill seeker through the use of speed and stunts. While the Yankee image is also that of an action-seeker, by evolving into bosozoku, the Yankees can then act out their ideal character and image. Now they can express focal concerns, which revolve around action, by stressing their masculinity, prowess, valor, and resourcefulness in an almost ideal manner.
Context of Play
The behavior of the bosozoku and Yankees is characterized by the extreme expressiveness and playfulness in their activities. The gang members enjoy showing off their bizarre and flashy costumes as well as attracting attention with their risky activities. The frequently refer to "play," "thrills," and "kicks" in gang activities. It is clear that these gang members engage I these activities for the pursuit of excitement and thrills rather than from considerations of personal gain or profit.
Even though the gang members define their activities as play, the public in general does not. The publicís mind was filled with images of glue sniffing, battery, rape, murder, and theft as a result of media reports. In addition, the bosozoku were said to be the first reserve in the ranks of the yakuza. However, these reports used the bosozoku as a general term and were often unfounded. No distinction was made between true bosozoku and standard motorcycle gangs. Better understanding is achieved through the understanding of the economic and social backgrounds of the gang members.
During the postwar period in Japan, there was low unemployment and an even income distribution. People had more disposable income and began to improve their material living. This began a trend in which even the recession in 1973 did not hinder too much. Rather than facing starvation and poverty, Japan was concerned with obesity and excessiveness. However, the affluence of the culture resulted in the youth having more opportunity and motivation to engage in various experimentations. Thus a form of social experimentation was delinquency and joining these gangs.
The social issue is the class of working youths that detest the style and tastes of college students and graduates. They sneer at their "effeminate" poses and American sports cars. They are then detested in return and this further widens the social gap between the youth social classes. As a result, a class of youths is formed that have grown to resent the affluence on their society and then seek to challenge its norms in an attempt to rebel and show their resentment. These youths are then bored with their life style and the gangs give them the excitement and rebelliousness they desire. In their eyes, this is how they can enjoy life and have their fun. Until measures for social control exist, a considerable number of Japanese youths will follow this road and join the gangs to seek their thrills and own brand of fun.