Continuing Tokyo Telephone’s series of post-apocalyptic articles comes possibly the most important of all cultural movements, that of the Japanese biker. Thrust into the western mainstream by the classic film Akira (1988), the biker movement in Japan started with an aping of the West, but like all these phenomenons took on a life of its own soon after. Needless to say, I am mostly interested in the fashion of this movement, sharing as I do, similar values. I thought I would have a look at that fashion, but also try and chart the trends and spirit of the Japanese biker.
Continue reading for a brief history and taste of the true outlaws of Japan and see how we got from Harleys to 109-2 brands like Slangy.
Having been party to a genuine apocalypse in the form of the second world war that saw Tokyo fire-bombed and its army disbanded, there remained a huge amount of ex-soldiers with mechanical knowledge, not to mention a heavy dose of disaffection with society, and it was they who would go on to be the very first bikers of Japan. Then in the 50s as Japan’s automobile economy ballooned in the first of the countries economic booms, the movement grew with it as bikes became more creative. I would say those are the two elements that have always defined Japanese biker – the design of the bikes themselves and militarism:
Note the army squad mentality and symbolism, clothing taken from lower class professions and military uniforms -even going so far as to use swastikas next to Japanese manji in deliberate provocation. Needless to say, this is mostly shock-tactics and rebellion without much actual action against society beyond provocation. However I feel that the use of kamikaze imagery and militaristic names just goes to show a very real disaffection with the state of Japanese societies submission to the outside world and general weakness in international affairs. So perhaps I would say that these are rebels with a cause.
Central to the appearance of the Biker which by the 80s had been dubbed the Bousouzoku by the Japanese media was the tokkoufuku – special attack uniform.
Note the use of classical Japanese and exaggeration of military uniform. But on a purely aesthetic level these are works of art in their own right that rival the best that Sukajyan can offer (and often very similar imagery is used).
By the mid 80s when films like Akira were romanticising the idea of the biker gang for the mainstream, the Japanese media started cooking up all kinds of scare-mongering stories and the police began to crack down on what had only ever been a relatively small problem for society, all but eliminating the real biker gangs. Now the fashion has been distilled for the mainstream and glamourised in photobooks and DVDs as if they were idols.
A shame perhaps, but inevitable really. At least the brands that do it well around the backstreets of Ueno, do do it justice. If you are interested check out Script, Satori, Stop-Light and even very mainstream brands like Jackrose.
For me the central issue of rebellion that Japanese biker focuses on has always been that of militarisation. You can see it reflected in the motifs that cover their uniforms as well as the organisation of their gangs. Also culturally the idea of independence and freedom in Japanese media is often connected with a new form of military strength, as is reflected in one of my favorite scenes in the manga of Akira, where at the very end of the manga the military arrive to take over the ruins of Tokyo only to be turned away by the biker gangs who have claimed it as their own.
Sentimental maybe, but you can’t help but think that if there is one thing Japanese politics/society needs, it is revolution. I doubt the lads of Shibuya center-gai in their OraOra gear are the ones to do it, but the spirit is very much alive and biding its time.