VIDEO: The dying tradition of bosozoku

Vice Setting Sun bosozoku documentary 01

“The view was breathtaking, especially at night. The lights would just go on forever,” recalls Kazuhiro Hazuki, the 21st leader of Specter, one of Japan’s most famous bosozoku gangs. In its prime, the Chiba Soumei Rengo (alliance), of which Specter was a part, stretched between eastern Tokyo and western Chiba and could bring out 2,000 bikes riding in formation in a single night. Sadly, those days are gone. 

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HBO’s Vice has released a new documentary called The Setting Sun: The History and Present of Bosozoku, a worthy watch for those even remotely interested in Japan’s motoring culture. It’s also a fantastic story that cuts to the heart rather than just a montage of drone and tracking shot footage set to a thumping beat.

The short film is based largely on the oral history of Specter’s Hazuki, who today is in his 40s and works as part of a concrete demolition crew. “The last stop for people who’ve never held any real jobs,” he calls it. After life as a bosozoku, a yakuza and several stints behind bars, he is most fond of his days as a young teen and new to the Specter tribe.

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He even remembers the day he decided to become a bosozoku. He was sitting in class in middle school when a gang rode by outside, zoku-revving their engines. “At that moment, my concept of school lost all value,” Hazuki recalls. “As soon as I heard those engines roar, my interest in school disappeared instantly.”

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Once he joined Specter, his life became a string of riding, fighting and run-ins with the police. He was assigned a senpai (elder, or big brother) who mentored him the ways of the violent running tribes and their turf battles: “You gotta prey on them before they prey on you.” Hazuki served him loyally until… well, you’ll have to watch the film to learn the senpai’s fate.

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Nowadays, the bosozoku are all but extinct. A few younger members carry the Specter flag and that of some other gangs in the Chiba Soumei Rengo, while other formerly mighty syndicates have completely retired. In any case, you get the sense that the bare-knuckle hardness is gone, though. The senpais don’t seem like they’d put in the effort to beat up a subordinate for a weak introduction anymore. It’s more like a big extended household and the elders are just happy someone’s carrying on the family business.

Muto Z

One such gang is the infamous Nina Mona, whom Hazuki credits as the originators of the Chibaragi Shiyou and gurachan styles of bike and car modification. As fate would have it, one of Nina Mona’s elders, Atsushi Muto, has just passed away as the documentary is being filmed. JNC readers may not know the name, but are likely familiar with his car, the “Muto Z.”

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As gray-haired patriarchs of the surviving bosozoku clans reminisce about their former lives, Hazuki becomes visibly heartbroken about the bygone era. “The reason bosozoku are gone now is that Japan is a fully developed country. It won’t allow any flaws in the system,” he theorizes. “Current society will not let the average low-life succeed by doing low-life things.”

Perhaps this is why Hazuki chose to tell his story after all these years. Despite their flashy getups and loud bikes, it’s uncharacteristic of “low-lifes” to let outsiders, especially journalists, into their world. But that world is gone. Knowing that, Hazuki’s parting words seem especially poignant: “The excitement I got just from living life will never be the same.”

Image: Minkara

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23 Responses to VIDEO: The dying tradition of bosozoku

  1. Nigel said:

    Always interested in learning more about the “Speedtribes”.

  2. Wayne Thomas said:

    Good. Fuck ’em. Those who admire do so from afar. When you live here and have to deal with their pussy bullshit at the lie of fighting the conformity of Japan…..all the while everyone dressing and acting the same in a group riding the same types of motorcycles all doing the exact same thing. What frauds. They could really fight the system but deep down…they just don’t have the guts.

    • Caleb Parker said:

      Ey first off join a bosozoku hand then come back and tell me that, and it’s not all about that it’s about having fun and being young and just rebelling in general if watch the video and do research on it they all got in the gangs around the age 17. They did this to break conformity and have fun riding with there brothers not to be called pussys by some white American idiot so shut the hell up and do some research.

  3. Nakazoto said:

    I’m gonna sound like an old man, but the first time 15 of them ride by your window at 3 A.M. with their straight piped bikes bouncing off the rev limiter, you learn the real meaning of hatred. Get off my lawn you damn kids!

  4. Ben Hsu said:

    I’m interested in all facets of Japanese culture, good or bad. Whatever you think of the bosozoku, one aspect is indisputable — they created a fascinating and distinctive culture of bike and car customization.

    In my California neighborhood, every night without fail at 2am there’s a guy who takes off down the street in a modified Lamborghini, exhaust note echoing off hillsides and probably waking at least 4-5 subdivisions. Occasionally there are guys on modified crotch rockets, muscle cars doing donuts at the empty school parking lot nearby, and one time a kid on the street’s friend drifted his S14 onto my neighbor’s lawn and into his parked truck two houses down from me at 3am.

    All of these were annoying, but will it ever take away my love for the machines? I think not…

    Great find, Matt!

    • Randy said:

      Idiot in a Lambo at 2am? So you live near the Biebs? 🙂

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Near Los Angeles newer Lamborghinis (and Ferraris, Bentleys, Maseratis) are as common as Camrys. Could be anyone, but I agree he’s definitely Biebery in spirit.

    • Ant said:

      Agree with the sentiment Ben, and I agree with those who’ve criticised the bosozoku too. They’re a fascinating footnote in Japan’s history and it’s interesting learning more about a culture I’ve never experienced myself; at the same time, like any group that arguably does more harm than good, they shouldn’t be held in reverence.

      All part of the rich tapestry of life… but you wouldn’t wanna live near ’em!

    • Wayne Thomas said:

      Whatever you think of the bosozoku, one aspect is indisputable — they created a fascinating and distinctive culture of bike and car customization.

      No Ben, that is very much in dispute. its fine for you to like it….living in LA thousands of miles away with one anecdote of a rich asshole in a Lamborghini. Your asshole revs and boom, he’s gone. When your Lamborghini guy drives around and around and around your house night after night revving for several minutes to an hour…then you might have a genuine understanding rather than the passing “oooooooooo looky…sparkles” attitude from someone looking from afar.

      Their penis nosed bikes have the exact same aesthetic without even the advanced engineering of a Harley-Davidson. Something to love? Can’t account for taste. Admire? Where is the engineering? Where is the individuality? For those of us living here, we don’t see on a daily basis what an interloper sees in an online documentary.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      I don’t know of any other place in the world that customizes their bikes and cars like the bosozoku (unless they were inspired directly by them). That makes it the very definition of distinctive, and thus fascinating, to me.

      • Wayne Thomas said:

        When they fuck with YOUR kids…you will upgrade your dictionary.

        • Spudenater said:

          All these flavors, and you choose to be salty, Wayne. Ben I agree with your sentiment, as damaging as they may have been to the communities from which they sprang, I still find the culture and style to be very rich and unique. I would compare them to American outlaw bikers in some regards, who also have a distinctive subculture and dubious reputation. Neither are groups I would idolize or even tolerate, but I still find it important to recognize the contributions (intentional or otherwise) that they have made to the national car and bike cultures of their respective homelands.

          • Ryan said:

            Sounds like you got some issues with a certain group wayne. I for one like the spice of the unusual, good or bad.

  5. Negishi no Keibajo said:

    I understand the resentment of their ways. I also get that in the bigger picture, this society (like ours in the US) has become a sanitized “market” as opposed to people with real lifestyles. Personally, I resent the gentrification of every nook and cranny of my city. Wiping clean any hint of why people moved here in the first place.

    Like Ben said (in essence), it’s the landscape, not photoshop.

  6. Randy said:

    So they’re like Hell’s Angels… Yeah, I probably wouldn’t want them living in my neighborhood, either; I don’t get enough sleep as is. What I’m understanding is that the Japanese gov’t is using RICO laws – by whatever name they call them?

    I’m thinking that the biggest “lack” of new members is the lack of gearheads. Maybe partially because the newer vehicles are so much more complex, and let’s face it – the upcoming generations just aren’t into vehicles. There are lots of 20-somethings who don’t have even driver’s licenses. They’d rather text. Probably everyone on here, the DAY we could, took the test, and grabbed the keys a.s.a.p. (“I can go shopping for you, mom! Really!” Never mind that the ice cream would be beyond melted – evaporated – before we got home! 🙂 ) Of course, the gearheads are probably our future mechanical engineers, and mechanics.

    I’m not going to try that guy’s name – I’d butcher it – but he seems like he WANTS to do some good by the former members. Is there some sort of “Small Business Administration” type thing to help him get started in a business to get the former Bosozoku some kind of training to make them employable? He could be a contractor, I suppose. Of course, they could also work in the customizing industry, as well… It’s not like they don’t have experience.

    – BTW, stateside, that roadway work would be a union gig, payin’ $$$. It didn’t look too bad, really. Low-pressure; just left alone to do his job.

    I guess he’d say, as many have, regarding some area: “I’m gettin’ too old for this [stuff].” At least they can retire. In a previous life, I crossed paths with a guy in The Pagans. He told me: “You don’t retire.”

    Oh – is “Yakuza” a generic term for gang members? I always thought it was Mafia-like gangsters.

    Needless to say, I liked the video!

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Yakuza refers to organized crime, but they are a bit different than the Italian mafia. Where as mafioso means bravado, yakuza originates from the losing hand in an old Japanese card game. They consider themselves outcasts from society but also sometimes do civic deeds like donating truckloads of supplies to the affected areas in the aftermath of the tsunami/earthquake. You could say it was done out of the goodness of their hearts, but of course there are similarities to the Italian mob as well, so if you want to be cynical about it, perhaps the good deed are to promote their public image and influence authorities.

      Bosozoku and yakuza aren’t the same, but Hazuki is missing a bit of his pinky finger on his left hand, indicating that he graduated to organized crime after his days in the biker gang.

  7. ahja said:

    Another casualty of bland globalized homogeneity. Yeah, they were dirtbags. And their stuff has always looked stupid to me. But, they added texture and interest to the physical world that is now lacking everywhere. Many of you are happy that they have disappeared. But what made them disappear is something worse than them, and its coming down on all of us. Hyperregulation, aging demographics, and a culture excessively focused on tv and the internet.

  8. Kevin San said:

    The first time I encountered these guys in Japan, I heard them coming several minutes before they actually rode past. At first, I was like…”Cool! Real Bosozoku!”

    …but 30 seconds of the ear-splitting din later, I was kinda over it 🙂

    I always thought that these gangs were the entry-level to organised crime, but I have a feeling that since organised crime in Japan is very white collar and corporatised now, that these bike gangs have lost their relevance in a big way. Especially as the standard of living has improved a lot since the 70s heyday of these gangs.

  9. Jun said:

    zokushas, loud pipes, speeding Lambos and drift cars…I love them all.

    Loud ass Harleys in my hood be damned, though. haha

  10. Censport said:

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but this video gives me a different perspective of the road crews in Japan. I think I’ll give them even more room when I drive by.

  11. Jamie Morris said:

    The Vice piece was fluff…check this out:
    https://youtu.be/jKyvII0BgFw

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