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THE YANKĪ and BŌSŌZOKU: Origins and History

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The Yankī and Bōsōzoku
sub-cultures have been a big
part of Osaka since they began.
Here are two young Yankī girls
at a Bōsōzoku rally in Osaka
(2013)
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Americans are often surprized (and sometimes even a little disturbed) to learn that in Japan, the word ‘Yankī’ (pronounced "Yankee") refers to local gangs of violent juvenile delinquents.

The term originated in Osaka in the 1970s, referring to the young people who wandered the city streets dressed in the flashy clothes symbolic of the fashion shops of the city’s Amerika-Mura (“American Village”) district.

As the term began to spread across Japan, ‘Yankī’ became less about Amerika-Mura fashions and more synonymous with juvenile delinquents in general, and it eventually came to describe an entire sub-culture as the Yankī image was popularized in magazines, television dramas, manga and other forms of media throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

But to understand what makes the Yankī and Bōsōzoku tick, you have to wind the clock back some 70 years to the surrender and Occupation of Japan after the end of World War II.

Life in post-war Japan was a chaotic struggle to survive at best.

The air raids on Japan's urban centers had left millions displaced and caused severe food shortages, made worse by bad harvests and the demands of the war. 

Forced repatriation of Japanese living in other parts of Asia only aggravated the problems in Japan as these displaced people put more strain on already scarce resources.  Over 5.1 million Japanese returned to Japan in the fifteen months following October 1, 1945. 

Alcohol and drug abuse became major problems.  Deep exhaustion, declining morale and despair was so widespread that it was termed the "kyodatsu condition" (虚脱状態 kyodatsujoutai, literally "state of lethargy").  Inflation was rampant and many people turned to the black market for even the most basic goods. 

The phrase "shikata ga nai", or "nothing can be done about it," was commonly used to encapsulate the Japanese public's resignation to the harsh conditions endured while under Occupation

And it was in this setting that the packs of post-war bad boys known as Furyō (不良) came into being...  

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Even though Aloha shirts have
close ties with Japan (see ALOHA SHIRT), when post-war Japanese youth began to "re-import" them
from the United States, wearing
one was seen as an insult to all
things Japanese and embodying
the ways of Japan's conquerors.

The Coming of the Furyō...

Furyō, which literally means "not good", became synonomous with deliquency and petty crime in the post-war years of the Occupation of Japan, when the terms Furyō Kōi Shōnen and Shōjo (不良 行為 少年, or 少女 - literally "Not Good [ie. Bad] Act[ing] Boy" or "Girl" came into popular useage.

This became shortened over time so that eventually Furyō came to be a slang term, that is still sometimes used today, conveying much the same meaning as the English phrase "bad ass".

Closely related to the lowest levels of Japanese organized crime, the Furyō set the standards for how to be bad for generations of Japanese youth.  

More than simply being a bunch of violent thugs, they also created their own insane fashion sense.

Furyō were tough guys who deliberately wore traditional Japanese sandals or slippers, workmen's nikkapokka pants and the loudest, ugliest Aloha shirts they could find.  

This was a serious affront to mainstream Japanese society, for even though Aloha shirts have close ties with Japan (see ALOHA SHIRT), when post-war Japanese youth began to "re-import" them from the United States, wearing one was seen as an insult to all things Japanese and as embodying the ways of Japan's conquerors.

In 1948, "Kikyo" (Repatriation), Jiro Osaragi's novel that was printed as a serial in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, a character says: "The same people that competed to wear state-designated uniforms are now changing into Aloha shirts. ... They are a perfect example of a stateless people."

Osaragi was far from the only intellectual of the time who deplored the abandoning of their nationality by war-defeated Japanese.

But Furyō did not just offend the sensibilities of mainstream Japanese society with their dress sense, or acting as enforcers for the thriving black marketeers in early post-war Japan.

Furyō would sometimes go as far as filing down their teeth down with sandpaper, making the gaps bigger to aid in the art of spitting casually out of the side of their mouth.

It may not seem much to modern Westerners, but this was considered seriously bad ass in Post-War Japan, as spitting in public was not just a social 'no-no', it was actually a punishable offense!

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The precursors to the modern Bōsōzoku were known as the
Kaminari zoku (雷族 'Thunder Tribe'), motorcyclists similar in appearance to the British Rockers of the 50s and 60s.
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Enter the 'Thunder Tribe'...

The precursors to the Bōsōzoku were known as Kaminari zoku (雷族 “Thunder Tribe”), due to the deafening roar of their motorcycles when riding in groups.

They date back to the 1950s, and were urban motorcyclists similar in appearance to the British Rockers of the same era.

Many Kaminari zoku members were returned servicemen (often surviving Kamikaze pilots) and joined Kaminari zoku groups for many of the same reasons people in all countries join gangs.

They joined up to feel like they were part of something bigger while at the same time thumbing their nose at a society they felt had rejected and abandoned them.

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Today, the Kaminari zoku have all but died out for all intents and purposes, though their 'descendants' (for want of a better term) can still be seen every Sunday, in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.
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No youth sub-culture is complete without its music, and musicans such as Johnny Ōkura, and bands like 'Carol', dressed in menacing black leather jackets and leather pants — as well as hair in greasy long Regents.

'Carol' used a similarly-attired biker gang called the 'Cools' as security at their concerts, who later formed their own band. (See ROKABIRII: THE SOUND OF JAPANESE TEEN REBELLION FOR OVER 60 YEARS)

Today, the Kaminari zoku have all but died out for all intents and purposes, though their 'descendants' (for want of a better term) can still be seen dressed up in Fifties gear and dancing around a boom box to “At the Hop” every Sunday, in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.

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Banchō (番長) - a youth sub-culture
that came into prominence during
the '60s in Japan, but had all but
died out by the end of the '70s.
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The Banchō and Sukeban...

The next evolutionary leap in Japanese youth sub-culture saw the emergence of the Banchō (番長), a youth sub-culture that came into prominence during the 60s in Japan, but which had began to die off by the ‘70s, with the emergence of the Yankī and Bōsōzoku.

Banchō were the baddest of the bad asses in Middle and High Schools who fought to be top dog at their school and then, having cemented their position, fought with other Banchō from different areas in pint sized imitations of Yakuza territorial wars.

Banchō who ruled several schools and had control of other Banchō were called Sōban (総番), and in elementary schools and under, the term for Banchō was Gakitaishō (ガキ大将).

The Banchō were relatively short-lived and by the end of the 70s the term was considered old fashioned, but vestiges of the word still remained, such as in the nicknames for baseball players Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Daisuke Miura.

By the end of the 20th century, as a term for juvenile deliquents and gang members, Banchō had almost ceased to exist, and had become either a title of honour for people with leadership skills, and who stood against tough elements, or a derogatory term for people who had a great deal of bravado and little to back it up, depending on the context in which it was used.

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Sukeban - these girl gangs continue
to be a strong influence on Yankī
and Bōsōzoku to this day.
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Then there were the Sukeban (スケバン/女番/スケ番 - literally: "Girl Boss" but carrying the meaning of "Delinquent Girl"), the female version of Banchō, who would beat six colours of crap out of you if they caught you planning to leave the gang, or if you got a boyfriend.

The typical image of a Sukeban is that of a merciless fighter, though with a strong sense of gang honour, something that would carry over to the Yankī and Bōsōzoku who followed in their footsteps.

The Sukeban became serious pay dirt for movie makers (see PINKU VIOLENCE) and the writers of TV dramas (see SUKEBAN DEKA) from the early 70s through to the 1990s and beyond.

Today, classic Sukeban fashion, typified by a long, flowing skirt and streaked beached hair, is considered woefully out of style, but the Sukeban’s way of life - a revolutionary mix of to-the-death sisterhood, iron-clad rules, and an underworld-style flair for organization - continues to influence Japanese schoolgirls whenever they gather in packs.

One major aspect of Sukeban style can be seen to this day.   Indeed, it is major contribution to the universally accepted image of the Japanese bad girl. - The Sukeban religiously wore their school uniforms no matter where they were or what they were doing.
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The tradition has stuck with generations of girls since, from the Kogals of 1990s right up until today’s Shibuya District girls (although the skirts have since gotten a whole lot shorter).

During the mid-60s, the gangs ranged in size from Tokyo’s United Shoplifters Group, which numbered 80 girls in all, up to the Kanto Womens' Delinquent Alliance, the single biggest Sukeban organization, made up of some TWENTY THOUSAND girls from across western Japan.

Like a real corporate entity, the alliance boasted within it’s ranks a presidential hierarchy, including a board of directors, advisors, and even an accountant.

The Sukeban phenomenon peaked in the mid-70s with the emergence of allegedly the single most fearsome Sukeban in history.

Hailing from Saitama, Tokyo, K-Ko the Razor commanded a private army of 50 teenaged warriors.   Her nickname came from her weapon of choice: a cut-throat razor tightly wrapped in cloth and tucked between her breasts, whipped out with superhuman speed to slash her enemies’ faces.
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Few Sukeban cast quite as menacing a shadow as did K-Ko, whose exploits have reached the status of an urban legend of sorts, but physical violence of one sort or another was an everyday fact of life for many Sukeban.

Not only were there plenty of rival factions to tangle with, but there was also ample opportunity to inflict damage on members of one’s own gang.

Breaking the rules (and the Sukeban loved to make rules) could result in a physical sanction known as “lynching”.

Lynching involved several degrees of punishment, beginning with a lit cigarette applied to bare skin, which was considered getting off easy.   The same cigarette applied to more intimate parts of the body ranked as ”medium.”   The hardest of punishments rival anything one would see in any of the Pinku Violence movies of the era that cashed in on the Sukeban image.

Reasons for lynching were numerous and varied from gang to gang.

They might include showing disrespect to the senior members, speaking to “enemies”, or being caught doing drugs (although sniffing paint thinner for a quick and cheap high was common among Sukeban), the most common cause of a lynching was fooling around with the opposite sex.
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Cheating on a boyfriend (inevitably a Banchō gang member himself) would surely lead to a lynching - that is, if a member even bothered with guys in the first place.

Because of the emotional nature of the relationships between the girl-gang members, jealousy and crushes on other members could, and often did, lead to intense, soap opera-style drama.

In spite of all the petty crimes the Sukeban casually indulged in, the girls themselves were convinced that they were living by high moral standards.

Perhaps the chasteness of the Sukeban (take those long skirts, for instance) was a reaction to the permissive sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Dressing sexy and wearing too much makeup were frowned upon.

These girls looked and acted tougher and older then they actually were, but the chain and razor-packing Sukeban were surprizingly conversative when it came to matters of dating, romance and sex.

Though the actual Suken phenomenon itself had all but died off by the 1980s as gang members just grew up, "graduated" from gang life, and slowly became integrated into society, their mythos continues to endure in Japanese Pop-culture, even becoming regular 'characters' (see SUKEBAN KYOKO) for Japanese comedians.

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Sukeban Kyoko - a delinquent schoolgirl who was always seen
carrying a shinai bamboo sword, and alter ego of Japanese
comedian, the late Yakkun Sakurazuka (桜塚 やっくん) (1976-2013)
S/He released six singles, including "Geki Maji Mukatsuku",
"1000% So Zakune", and "ChristMaster".
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The Yankī and Bōsōzoku...

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By the 70s and 80s, being a bad ass in Japan was an occupation that could be enjoyed by both sexes... and a new generation was ready to buck the system.   This is where the history gets a little bit fuzzy and confusing.... Which came first?   The chicken or the egg?   The Yankī or the Bōsōzoku?

There are many similarities between the two...

Both combine the wild fashion sense of the Furyō, a love of Yakuza-style power games common to Banchō and Sukeban, both idolize the Samurai and Kamikaze, and both seem to share a fanatical devotion to motorcycles... the only real difference seems to be that Bōsōzoku are Yankī that have enough cash to actually own a motorcycle!

So where did the ‘Yankī’ and 'Bōsōzoku' come from?
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Typical street scene in Amerika-Mura
(2014)
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Near Shinsaibashi in the Minami district of Osaka, there is a sizable retail and entertainment area called “Amerika-mura” (アメリカ村, American Village), usually referred to by locals as "Ame-mura".

Amerika-mura is identifiable by a small-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty that peers down on the streets.

It is a well-known haunt of expatriate Westerners, and centres on Triangle Park, a concrete rest area surrounded by retail outlets of Western fashions, bars and nightclubs, some of which are run by Westerners.
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During the 70s, just as it is now, Ame-mura was known for being a meeting place for rebelious teenagers, who went there to score tacky Aloha shirts, aviator style sunglasses and other regalia that not only helped them identify themselves as a group, but made them stand out from mainstream society.

Since their clothes, hair styles and even their rebelious attitude were regarded as being American in origin, they got the nickname “Yankī”, as in the ever-popular slogan “Yankee Go Home!” ...and the name stuck.

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The distinctive Yankī image soon became synonymous with anything that was generally frowned upon in the mainstream culture, including a ridiculously long pompadour-like hairstyle, baggy pants, and (for the girls) a uniform that was either too long (Sukeban-style) or too short (Kogal-style).

Members of Bōsōzoku (a term coined by the local press in Osaka in the 70s), or motorcycle gangs, strengthened their intimidating image with long 'Tokko fuku' jackets emblazoned with gang logos and slogans, an occasional lead pipe accessory, and extravagantly decked-out motorcycles with deafening exhaust pipes.

As the term spread across Japan, ‘Yankī’ became synonymous with ‘juvenile delinquent’, and eventually came to describe an entire sub-culture as the Yankī image was popularized in magazines, television dramas, comic books and other forms of media throughout the 80s, 90s and into the present day.

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Members of Bōsōzoku gangs, strengthened their intimidating
image with long 'Tokko fuku'
jackets embroidered with gang
logos and slogans, an occasional
lead pipe accessory, and illegally modified motorcycles with
deafening exhaust pipes.
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So who exactly are these people?

The average Yankī or Bōsōzoku begins life as a disaffected bored youth.   Around the age of 13 to 14, they join a high school gang of others like themselves, the cool variety with a thing for motorcycles, dyed hair and customized Tokko-fuku and uniforms.

They also require heavy-duty lungs, since Yankī kick off their careers (usually around the age of 14) with excessive anpan (solvent sniffing) combined with moku (chain smoking) - a hazardous combination - usually conducted on the school okujo (rooftop).

But though they obviously share some common traits known to oya o nakaseru (make their parents weep), Yankī are way above mere problem kids.

Yankī and Bōsōzoku alike are a part of a strict, hierarchical sub-culture in which the senpai (elder) reigns supreme.

Younger Yankī are expected to speak to their senpai in keigo (reverent speech) at all times, to run their errands and observe the codes of honour particular to that Yankī clan.

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The preferred style of dress is a
Tokko-fuku (Kamikaze Coat):
a long robe-like jacket covered
in Kanji characters.
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All this must be conducted with konjyo (guts), seii (sincerity) and nyukon (dedication of the soul) — the three pillars of Yankī behaviour, for, paradoxically these teen rebels are one of the most tradition-bound segments of Japanese society.

They enjoy taking over railway stations and parking lots - because, let’s face it, there’s not much else to do in a regional town in Japan - battling other gangs, and riding their bikes and scooters to Mt Fuji to celebrate New Years Eve (Even though the cops have been trying to crack down on this annual event, it remains the biggest event of the year: a kind of Yankī and Bōsōzoku Woodstock with paint thinner instead of LSD).

The preferred style of dress is a Tokko-fuku (Kamikaze Coat): a long robe-like jacket covered in Kanji characters.

Each elaborately embroidered hardboiled slogan (example: “I was born to Die!   There’s no other way for me to Live!”) is incredibly expensive to have made.

The more slogans you have, the more status you gain within the group.   But be warned.   Since every Tokko-fuku is a proclamation of the owner's strength, people will continually try to challenge you to back it up. So a real Yankī or Bōsōzoku has got to be tough - lest you be beaten up and labelled merely a "Banchō".

Just as the third act of Kamikaze Girls, or just about any episode of the TV drama Majisuka Gakuen portray, violence is an essential component of the Yankī and Bōsōzoku lifestyle, especially when gangs turn on their own members for breaking the rules, or when battling other gangs.

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Opening theme for the TV drama Majisuka Gakuen,
which is about life in an all girls' high school
dominated by Yankī gangs.
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These violent attacks are called “suicide missions”, and sometimes the results are fatal.

Dying from injuries sustained in fights with baseball bats and steel pipes is not unheard of.

Gaijin (外人, literally "outside person[s]" meaning "foreigner[s]"), especially Chinese and Korean migrant workers (the old "damn foreigners stealing our jobs" line is not unique to the Western world), have long been a favourite target for their aggression.

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As the term spread across Japan,
Yankī’ became synonymous with ‘juvenile delinquent’, eventually coming to describe an entire sub-culture as the Yankī image was popularized in movies, TV dramas, manga and other forms of media throughout the 80s, 90s and into
the present day.
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But the Yankī should not be seen as merely thugs.  As stated before, they live by a strict moral code that owes much to the oyabun-kobun (parent-child) system of the Yakuza.

They also take inspiration from the “live beautifully, die young” sentiments familiar to Kamikaze pilots. A Yankī boss is sometimes called a Tokko-taicho; the captain of a suicide mission.

Many decorate their clothes with the old Japanese Imperial flag and/or the Japanese Imperial Kamon - a stylized chrysanthemum blossom - both symbols that are inseparable from memories of World War II.

By the age of 18 or 19, the life of a Yankī and Bōsōzoku in his or her prime is winding down. Anyone who stays much past the age of 20 is considered a bit of a loser.

It is worth noting that, contrary to what many English-language websites claim, Japanese I have met tell me that, very few Yankī and Bōsōzoku become members of the Yakuza after turning 20 years of age, the legal adult age in Japan.

The boys inevitably get blue-collar jobs in factories, and the Yankī girls get pregnant and become mothers with dizzying speed.

When the local seijin shiki (coming of age) ceremonies roll around at the age of 20, Yankī mamas, or yan-mama will take a break from shopping at Costco or buying platform sandals at Tokyo's famous 109  building, and will show up with their babies in tow, while the Bōsōzoku tend to make a more spectacular entrance. (See BIKER GANG CRASHES 'COMING OF AGE' CEREMONY IN REAL LIFE ANIME MOMENT)

Japan’s average first-time marriage age climbs steadily higher, but (ex)Yankī and Bōsōzoku will already have finished raising their kids by the age of 35.

On weekends the (ex)Yankī  Mum and Dad will will pile the kids into their kaizosha (a car specially customized with their own hands), rev up the engine and screech over to a freeway fami-resu (family restaurant) for a hearty meal and a few beers, while the 'good' office ladies and salary men - who dutifully studied hard and went to university - will gather in karaoke bars, get mindlessly drunk to drown their sorrows, and moan about how they are working themselves to death, the lack of suitable marriage partners, how they may never have children...

        ...and ask themselves just where the Hell did they go wrong?

Go figure...            



POSTSCRIPT:

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A Yankī gang (average age 15)
from Ibaraki (2013).
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While very few continue to be active gang members past the age of 20, it is worth noting that many ex-Yankī and Bōsōzoku adults tend keep strong ties to their former gangs.

Visits to the old stomping ground are common, where the "old bro's" will sip on the beer and sake respectfully offered to them by the new upcoming members, and regale the youngsters with tales of heroic deeds from days gone by... that always seem to begin with “When I was your age . . .

Few ever leave their hometowns, and aside from growing older, there’s really nowhere for them to go.

This is the fundamental tragedy of the Yankī and Bōsōzoku.

They have created their own culture and unique style, one that is certainly worthy of further study, but they seem incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to communicate it to outsiders.

It might seem like such isolation will lead to the Yankī and Bōsōzoku someday becoming totally extinct, but I doubt it...

As long as Japan has regional towns and a countryside - and the kids who live there are bored out of their minds - it is a safe bet that a parking lot full of angry looking, chain-smoking, juvenile delinquents in brightly embroidered Tokko fuku's is only just around the next corner...



RELATED ARTICLES:
BIRTH OF THE MOTORCYCLE GANG: USA x JAPAN
ROKABIRII: THE SOUND OF JAPANESE TEEN REBELLION FOR OVER 60 YEARS


SEE ALSO:
ZOKU (Tribe)


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