Wheeled Headdress: Motorcycle Helmets in Japan


He has a helmet.  On his sissy bar.  And that's where it probably stays....

He has a helmet. On his sissy bar. And that’s where it probably stays….

“What do you call a motorcyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet: an organ donor.”  ~David Perry

“If you think you don’t need a helmet, you probably don’t….” ~Unknown

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The Japanese have an incomprehensible habit involving their motorcycle helmets: they fail to fasten them to their heads.

So I’m driving home from the Marina where I teach scuba diving, a short drive, perhaps no more than about a mile and a half. However, the road traveled on this particular journey is the main north-south thoroughfare on Okinawa (“Hwy 58”), and the specific stretch of pavement reaching to my home neighborhood lacks red lights, stop signs, and allows some of the faster driving on Okinawa…at a blistering 60 kph, roughly 40 mph!

So on my drive there’s a guy who is bending down at the shoulder. As I close at the speed limit (this stretch of road is well-known for speed traps), I realize he’s retrieving a helmet, and when his “beanie” half-head motorcycle headdress is squarely in his hands, he starts to run up the sidewalk with the flow of traffic.

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My eyes curiously project to his likely destination, and notice a woman, a tiny Japanese girl, who is barely holding up what is considered here a true motorcycle, but at home would be more akin to a large dirt-bike. I pass her, seeing the strain of keeping all 300 pounds of that bike upright and off the ground, and watching in the rear-view mirror, I see the bike’s operator finally reach his certainly-soon-to-be-dropped mechanical steed.

And just as this spectacle is disappearing from the limits of my sight, the dude jumps back on the bike and places his helmet squarely on his head. Backwards and unbuckled.  And takes off down the road, his passenger giddy with delight…the helmet just waiting for the right gust of wind to be castaway, again.

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use.  Notice the bike is NOT moving....

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use. Notice the bike is NOT moving….

In 2013 there were 4,373 road fatalities in Japan (compared to our 33,000-odd annual road deaths), a total that the Japanese consider “excessively high,” even though it’s their 12th year of steady decline.  The Japanese government has responded by taking measures to reduce the number of annual road fatalities to fewer than 3,000 by 2015, in line with its goal of making Japan’s roads the safest in the world.  They are already pretty ding-dang safe.  At least in a car.

What's wrong with this picture:  no dog helmet!

What’s wrong with this picture: no dog helmet!

Thus, one of the “Priority Issues” that is being addressed in Japan’s 2014 Spring Road Safety Campaign include the proper wearing of helmets: of the 760 persons who died in Japan in 2013 while riding a motorcycle, just under half suffered head injuries even though 94.9% of the riders were “wearing” their helmets. A solid 33% of these unfortunate souls lost their helmets at impact. Primarily because they were either improperly fastened (think backwards or way up high on their heads) or not fastened at all (think straps dangling down swinging freely in the wind).

Okay, the cops wear helmets.  But apparently don't know how to use kickstands....

Okay, the cops wear helmets. But apparently don’t know how to use kickstands….

Now let’s be perfectly clear: there is a mandatory helmet law in Japan, for both driver and passenger.  And there is even a bicycle helmet law for kids under 13.  What I can’t find is the actual text of the law.  I have been told, in classic urban legend fashion, that the law only requires motorcycle riders to have a helmet, not actually wear it or fasten it….  Seems too ludicrous to be true, but it’s also oddly Japanese-enough to be totally believable.  Whatever the case, the police here in Okinawa seem to either be oblivious about helmet use (or the law), or simply look the other way.  Or perhaps helmets really don’t need to be buckled and/or fastened….

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet.  Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet. Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

As an aside, there is another facet of Japanese automobile operation that would make most Americans’ skin crawl. Although front seat seatbelt use in Japan is well over 90%, it is not uncommon to see children on the seats of both driver and front-seat passengers, even sitting on car’s dash!  Jody and I both cringe every time we see such a tragedy waiting to happen.

What's wrong with this picture?  No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards.  No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

What’s wrong with this picture? No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards. No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear all the hardcore bikers screaming about their “right” to NOT wear a helmet. Something about freedom and such….  I am a biker and I wear a helmet.  Arguing against such laws is as silly as claiming that the Civil War was really a war of northern aggression and a violation of states’ rights….  I don’t really care what other bikers choose to do.  As long as I don’t have to pay their medical bills or disability (and therein lays the rub).  However, what is clear is that helmets do reduce injury and potentially help avoid fatalities.

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Whatever the case, I really wanted just a few seconds with the helmet-challenged guy who stars in the opening of this blog to explain this: fastening your helmet, besides providing some measure of safety (however little), would at least avoid having it fly off your head, thereby leaving your bike in the care of your 90-pound Japanese girlfriend, who will, sooner or later, certainly drop your ride since her feet can barely touch the ground….  Maybe that would make a little more sense about wearing motorcycle helmets…in Japan!

What's wrong with this picture?  Riding in a skirt, while sexy, can be quite dangerous!

What’s wrong with this picture? Riding in a skirt, while sexy, has to be dangerous to her naughty bits!

Biker Life in Japan: Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi)


The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan

The Anime Version of Me and Jody as Bikers in Japan.  At least my eye color is close….

“And I to my Motorcycle, Parked like the Soul of the Junkyard Restored, a bicycle Fleshed with Power, and tore off up Highway 106, continually Drunk on the Wind in my mouth, Wringing the handlebar for Speed, Wild to be Wreckage Forever” ~James Dickey

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”  ~Hunter S. Thompson

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

Me on my Honda Steed in Okinawa, 2005

“Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.” ~Unknown

bikeI am a biker.  Well, let me correct that:  I own a large American cruiser, and I love to ride.  I am, however, part of the more modern movement of bikers and biking, unlike that of Easy Rider or Sons of Anarchy:  Older, mostly law-abiding, white-collar professional, and with the disposable income it takes to live the life, comfortably.  And at first glance things seem, as usual, weirdly dissimilar, In Japan, it is really…Big Similarity, Small Difference 大同小異 (daidō shōi).

Japanese Bosozoku:  No Hell's Angels!

Japanese Bosozoku: No Hell’s Angels, and the only anarchy is in the hairstyles!

Bōsōzoku (暴走族, “reckless tribe”) is a Japanese youth subculture associated with illegally customized motorcycles, in which mufflers are removed in order to make as much noise as possible.  Bōsōzoku also engage in dangerous or reckless driving, such as weaving in traffic, not wearing motorcycle helmets, speeding through congested city streets, and running red lights.  Hardly gang-like behavior by American standards.  But keep in mind that driving in Japan is taken much more seriously, as is breaking the law while driving.  When bōsōzoku go on group rides, led by a ride captain like we bikers do in the US, the Japanese police often dispatch a police vehicle to trail the group and help prevent any possible incidents.

“I’d rather be riding my motorcycle thinking about God than sitting in church thinking about my motorcycle” ~Unknown

My Ride...back home...in storage...for 3 long years....

My Ride…back home…in storage…for 3 long years….

My biker-life started in Okinawa back in 2005.  After separating from my then wife (now ex-wife), I found myself abandoning many of the restraints that had rather artificially held me back from doing many of the things I had always envisioned myself doing.  How many of us get caught up in kids, our jobs, and the roles to fulfill and the molds to fill that others and society set for and expect of us?  Most.  A radical shift in mindset – like that of an imminent divorce – sometimes is what it takes to redirect one’s life to a more true and…dare I say “interesting” path, one at least where preconceived notions and attitudes can be rejected.

Grease 2, Who's That Guy?  He's Bōsōzoku!!!

Grease 2, Who’s That Guy? He’s Bōsōzoku!!!

In Japan, bōsōzoku members have been traditionally almost always under the legal age of 20, and their anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority set them apart from the normal straight-laced teenager in Japan.  Many dedicated and hardcore members have often moved on to become low ranking members of the truly organized crime gang/syndicate in japan, the yakuza.  Now those guys constitute a gang, by any standard.

Uncle-Sam-Biker-Large

I didn’t get my first bike until I was 39, well over the legal age, when I too found myself full of anti-establishment attitudes and lack of respect for authority, which most certainly set me apart from most card-carrying, gun-toting, conservative Christian Republican Officers that made up the majority of the US military’s officer corps.  While I learned to ride dirt bikes at a very young age – without even wearing shoes or a shirt, let alone a helmet – and continued to enjoy 3-wheeling long after they were no longer made (‘cause, you know, they are too dangerous, which also means they are a BLAST!), I kept the urge to bike at bay for my entire married life….

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor:  "T"

My Bestest Biker-Bud and Mentor: “T”

The first bōsōzoku started popping up in Japan in the 1950s when Japan’s automobile industry started to explode and blue-collar work and jobs became very regimented. These early hooligans were known as kaminari zoku or “thunder tribe,” and were molded on British counterculture rockers of the time.  Most came from lower class families and joined up for many of the same reasons people in all countries join gangs:  dissatisfaction with the system, government, or just their place in society (socio-economic status).  Just like anywhere else, people joined to feel like they were part of something bigger while at the same time sticking it to the man.  Hell, I feel that way most days, given the state of America’s “authorities.”

“Most motorcycle problems are caused by the nut that connects the handlebars to the saddle.” ~Unknown

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode....

My FIRST Bike, which I never rode….

That first thunder bike of mine was a brand new Harley Davidson Sporter 883, purchased through military sales on Okinawa in the summer of 2005.  However, I quickly found out why I was so anti-establishment and had a problem with the lame military authority on the island:  in the Navy, during your first year of riding in Japan, you are limited to a 400cc-sized engine, and you couldn’t take passengers.  WTF?  Sure, the military will put you in harm’s way on purpose, but oh no, they don’t trust you a bike for a split-second.  The bike purchase was refunded before I ever took ownership, but lucky for me, I found a perfect substitute that would pass the size muster:  a Honda 400cc Steed, a miniature cruiser, liquid-cooled, and fast as lighting!  I can neither confirm nor deny whether I took passengers on my motorcycle in Okinawa, but let’s just say it made for a GREAT date machine (wink)!

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home

My Modern Mainstream Biker Buds Back Home. You can’t be scary wearing a scarf….

"666" - As Evil as my Rides Get

“666” – As Evil as my Rides Get

In the 1980s and 1990s, bōsōzoku would often embark on massed rides, in which hundreds of bikers would cruise together slowly en masse down an expressway or through the suburbs.  The motorcyclists would run toll booths and ignore police attempts to detain them, blocking traffic and waving imperial Japanese flags (once outlawed in Japan) while creating an unbelievable uproar with their illegally modified mufflers.  The bikers would sometimes smash the cars and terrorize or assault any motorists or bystanders (especially gaijin) who got in the way or expressed disapproval with the bikers’ behavior.  Basically, like thugs and hooligans everywhere, these gangs were an annoying pain in Japan’s collective ass.

“People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it’s safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs” ~Unknown

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In Okinawa, in 1999, I remember hearing these biker “gangs” roaming the city streets, it seemed, between about midnight and 4 am.  Seriously, it’s like what’s written above:  they were really not tearing around or speeding all that much.  Rather, they were more interested in revving their engines while in neutral, moving slowly through the streets, but making a terrific racket.  I was told, at the time (and I cannot confirm this from any other source), that the bikers (and car gangs as well, which are very similar in all aspects) had informal agreements with the police that they (the gangs) wouldn’t be harassed if they did their riding late at night when traffic was minimal and the roads basically clear.  Obviously the police don’t live anywhere close to the roads frequented by these hoodlums, or those times would be changed!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker's ride.... He's not even color-coordinated!

That is certainly NOT an American Biker’s ride…. He’s not even color-coordinated!

Bōsōzoku historically have modified their bikes in peculiar and often showy ways; while they start as an average Japanese road bike, they quickly are transformed into something that appears to combine elements of an American chopper and a British cafe racer.  Loud paint jobs on the fenders and gas tanks with motifs such as flames or kamikaze style “rising sun” designs are commonplace.  The bikes will often be adorned with stickers and/or flags depicting the gang’s symbol or logo.

“No matter what marque you ride, it’s all the same wind.” ~Unknown

Look closely and you'll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

Look closely and you’ll see my (sexy) guardian angel.

176450172_930bc6730e_b176448878_a7aeffabde_bMe – my bike in Okinawa was adorned with bumper-stickers, namely Bettie Page pinups!  Yes, that’s right; I have always had a thing for the 40s, and felt that I was born in the wrong time and era.  From the fashion of the time, the defined roles in society, to the men’s men that served in WWII, I am drawn to that time.  And to the era’s pinups….  Okay, yeah, so Bettie is from the 50s, but you get my point!  And besides, Bettie was very anti-establishment for her time, and the fetish aspect of her demeanor fit mine oh so well.  I came to think of her as my own protective “angel,” except one dressed in black.  Wearing fishnets.  And carrying a whip.

BosoZoku-01

02WWII_Japanese_Kamikaze_Pilot_by_yehXiminThe stereotypical bōsōzoku are instantly recognizable, adorned with a jumpsuit like those worn by manual laborers or a tokkō-fuku (特攻服, “special attack uniform,” a reference to the uniform worn by Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII), a type of military issued overcoat with kanji slogans and rising-sun patches.  The tokkō-fuku is usually worn open with no shirt underneath, and baggy matching pants are tucked inside tall boots.  A tasuki is also usually worn as a sash tied in an “X” crossing the torso, again in emulation of Japanese World War II fighter pilots.  Leather jackets – the international symbol of bikerhood-dom, often embroidered with club/gang logos are commonplace.  Finally, the signature elements of the gangs include long hachimaki headbands complete with battle slogans (more reference to WWII), and most impressively and rather ridiculously, pompadour hairstyles, a mutation of what we would relate to as a greaser/rocker look.

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question....

I guess helmets are clearly out of the question….

“A zest for living must include a willingness to die.” ~R.A. Heinlein

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers.  Where's the Rising Sun, Jim??

A good biker-bud of mine in full leathers with 37 pieces of flair. Where’s the Rising Sun headband, Jim??

7167144030_7358e0745a_bI got my first leather riding vest while on Okinawa, and it is still my only one.  I swore I would never own chaps, but my first winter riding changed my mind in about 1.3 seconds at 60mph in 40 degree weather.  No, I don’t adorn myself with symbols, slogans, or gratuitous graffiti of most any sort.  I covered the back of my leather vest with the largest American flag I could find; years later, the front was minimally adorned with my retired Navy status, along with a succinct history of my service.

The drink:  very unbiker-like....

The Big-Gulp: very unbiker-like….

bos_1In Japan in the last decade, membership of the bōsōzoku has fallen from an all-time high of 42k+ in 1982 to an all-time low of barely 9k members across 500 gangs nationwide in 2011.  This is certainly due in part to new laws giving police more power to arrest groups of reckless bikers which have resulted in many more prosecutions.  It seems that the distractions of the modern world have also taken their toll on gang interest.  In a virtual alternative, which avoids the necessity of risk, arrest, and a large outlay of cash – and those silly hairstyles – modern Japanese youth seem more likely to vent their angst in aggressive and violent games like Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza.  Thus, being just the basic thugs they are, and finding themselves under new threat and distraction, the bōsōzoku started becoming less brazen in their ways, which has resulted in much less of the aura of being an anti-establishment gang cool enough to which to belong.  Many now even drive what would be considered large scooters, and ride in much smaller groups.  They even now dress much more main-stream.  And wear helmets.  And are older…and more professional.  Sound familiar??  Sometimes the only way to tell bōsōzoku today is that you can hear their bikes long before you can see the “gang.”  Such a modern morph on rebellion is a far cry from the gangs’ origins.  Whatever the reasons, thankfully, being less interesting to young counter-culture thugs, the gangs have become equally less annoying…and the streets have become much quieter.

“Young riders pick a destination and go….  Old riders pick a direction and go.” ~Unknown

Modern Bosozoku:  older, wiser, more mainstream, but not much quieter!

Modern Bosozoku: older, wiser, more mainstream, much less hair care product, but not much quieter!

The streets here ARE quieter, but there are still those bikers who ride throughout the night, revving their engines over and over, but going nowhere fast.  Although an American bike might say that it’s the journey that counts over the destination, in Japan it’s all about the cacophony of the journey!  It doesn’t bother me much; they do not frequent our neighborhood, and can only be heard in the distance.  Actually, I smile when I hear them, as I remain bike-less here on Okinawa – for now – and miss my Steed from back in the day, where I too could ride, with my knees in the breeze, my machine tuned for torque, a mere twist of my wrist providing that sense of freedom and independence that comes from riding cageless….

“A motorcycle is an independent thing.” ~Ryan Hurst

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late....

The only kind of riding Jody and are I enjoying of late….

Like biker gangs in the United States, which too have suffered a downturn and decline much like that experienced in Japan, the biker-life here has gone much more mainstream.  Which leads one to potentially ponder:  what do you think about this dying subculture?  Will bōsōzoku ever completely die out?  If so, should their corner of Japanese culture be preserved?  And have they served an interesting and important enough part of Japan’s society to one day gain a popular resurgence (think Easy Rider and Sons of Anarchy in terms of popularity in the United States)?  Or, are they a mere nuisance that deserves to be smothered once and for all?

“Never trade the thrills of living for the security of existence.” ~Unknown

Bike Quotes

Whatever happens to biker gangs ‘round the world, life is too short not to ride.  Sometimes, when one looks down a long, straight road, or when one crests that high hilltop which allows spying the twisting asphalt disappearing into the horizon’s haze, the road – like life – seems to never end.  But you better believe both do.  Do what you really want to do.  And do it today.

Whatever that happens to be for you, to me, it’s better in the wind.

It's Better in the Wind

It’s Better in the Wind