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 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.


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


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.


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

Team American Forces Network, F’Yeah!

Team American Anime, courtesy of the Japanese

Team American Anime, courtesy of the Japanese. Is this how they really see us??

“It’s the ability to choose that makes us human….” ~Old Proverb

“The only limits are, as always, those of vision.” ~James Broughton

“Laws control the lesser man….  Right conduct controls the greater one.” ~Mark Twain

So we’re in the Temporary Lodge Facility (TLF), limited to one of ten rooms available base-wide that are “pet-friendly,” and I am looking through the facilities guide.  You know, as all good tenants do (wink).  And I come upon the on-base cable and radio-station guide:

Choice, Limits & Control of the Media

Choice, Limits & Control of the Media

Wow.  Three words come to mind.  I mean they come to mind after I immediately think how cheap the US Military is when it comes to their most precious resource – its people.  Those three words?

Choice.  Limits.  Control.

AFN is Good for Some Things, but these Icons Permanently Clutter the Screen!

AFN is Good for Some Things, but these Icons Permanently Clutter the Screen!

I’m going to pen op-eds on and off about this peculiar institution and troublesome characteristic of the modern military for the duration here on Okinawa.  I have always been very disturbed by the way senior government officials and most levels of military leadership treat the core peoples of the military, and more so, in their responses to issues central to and most effecting the same.  It is quite a dichotomy that exists in every corner of our all-volunteer force; but it is extraordinarily amplified when living overseas.

Team American Alliance

Team American Alliance

Okay, sure, I get it.  We are all ambassadors of the United States, living in a foreign country at the pleasure of foreign peoples.  I understand that actions do speak louder than words, and that bad behaviors and the “ugly American syndrome” can cause local issue and perhaps some measure of international damage when in the extreme.

BUT, I’m sorry Department of Defense, you can’t have it both ways.  On the one hand, DoD is entrusting young men and women to make daily life-and-death decisions about use of deadly force, and then the same officials double-speak and state that the same person imbued with the power and US-backed authority to kill cannot purchase alcohol off-base except in conjunction with the evening meal….  Or, better yet, a Naval Aviator who’s entrusted with a $50M combat aircraft has to interview with the Commander Fleet Activities Okinawa (CFAO) and explain how he’s going to safely operate his motorcycle in order to get a motorcycle endorsement.  True story, and the lead-in to a funny but tangential story….

I’m stationed on Okinawa in 2005 and I finally decide to get my first motorcycle, one of the things I had always wanted in life, but held off and away while married and with kids.  Separated at the time, and on impulse, I buy a brand-new Harley Davidson 883 Sportster, a “small” bike in the states, but quite large – and Mac-Daddy – here in Okinawa.

And this leads to yet another tangent, but funny and quick I promise.  I’m in the Florida Keys at a gas station years ago and overhear a conversation between two bikers on opposite sides of the pump fueling their bikes.  One, a die-hard, rough-and-scruff prototypical biker on an HD Softail, decked out in leather, complete with ape-hanger handlebars, rhinestone-studded seats and worn saddlebags.  He looks over at what I assessed to be a relatively clean-cut yuppie professional, filling up a shiny new 883 Sportster.

“That’s a nice bike you got yourself there,” a deeply-throated rumble of a voice says.

“Why, thanks,” says the yuppie, overcome with a beaming proud grin of being recognized by such a hardcore biker.

“My girl has one just like it….”

Sometimes it's hard to handle The Truth

Sometimes it’s hard to handle The Truth

Silence ensues.

Come to find out that my Sportster’s engine is “too big” for initial riders on Okinawa.  I am limited to 400 cubic centimeters of displacement or less for my first year, AND, I am not allowed to take riders during that neophytic stage.

Team American Forces Network doesn't go quite this far....

Team American Forces Network doesn’t go quite this far….


But the insult is not yet enough.  I am told that in addition to taking the on-base motorcycle safety course (which is the very best thing anyone can do who even contemplates riding a bike) I have to “interview” with a Navy Captain, the dude who’s in administratively in charge of all Navy personnel on-island.  I guess to prove my mettle somehow.  Hopefully by arm-wrestling.

I make my appointment.  At the time I am a Navy Lieutenant Command, a combat veteran of the first Gulf and Balkan Wars, with a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance, qualified as the Air Defense watch officer of a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group with authority for shipboard weapons’ release…get the picture?  I sit down with the Captain, with whom I am already somewhat acquainted.  After some chit-chat, he asks me, “So, Elvis [my callsign], how are you going to stay safe on the motorcycle?”

I actually laugh in response; I have been labeled as “flippant” in the past by an early Commanding Officer, and my attitude never improved.

Even The Terrorists don't see the Point

Even The Terrorists don’t see the Point

But he’s quite serious.

“Well, Sir, I’m going to apply all those operational risk management techniques and safety tactics and procedures that the Navy taught me in flight school, the same ones the Navy seems to deem okay enough to entrust me with combat aircraft to and fro from das boot….”

Now it’s his turn to chuckle.  “Yes, I suppose that’s true.  I guess this interview is more attuned to the 18 year-old Airman who wants a bike….”  Then why are we even having the discussion?

Because of Choice, Limits, and Control.

The Navy limited my choice of bike size, and limited me to solo riding.  But they couldn’t control my spirit once on my 400cc Honda Steed, which turned out to be one wonderful motorcycle!  And sure, I didn’t take anyone riding…(wink).

Tightening the Grip doesn't Work

Tightening the Grip doesn’t Work

But back to AFN.  What struck me upon seeing the “choice” of programming available on Okinawa immediately led me to think how ridiculously little choice there is in access to stations and hence to media.  And not just cable/TV stations, but radio as well.

You may not think this is a very big deal, but let me assure you, it is.  It would be okay if the limited choice was not controlled by a single entity.  But the AFN franchises are so indeed.  And when lack of choice is compounded by controlling tendencies, limits surely ensure.  Limitations colored by healthy doses of propaganda.  And a majority of programming that most care not to see, hear, or even read….

I'm Convinced that Kim Jong Il is behind the AFN Commercials

I’m Convinced that Kim Jong Il is behind the AFN Commercials

Some of you may still think of these ramblings as an overreaction.  Still, those that have lived in Asian where AFN provides the only reliable English-based source of radio, and, in the older days, the only TV programming available in town through an old-fashioned aerial, know exactly of the truth of what I speak.  Programing on AFN borders on OCD:  safety is overplayed to such a comprehensive degree that most elements of a full, satisfying life are portrayed as dangerous and near life-threatening, albeit without extreme caution and full-time high alert.  Given the 24/7 constant barrage, it’s amazing that any of us made it to adulthood.  So that we could volunteer to serve, be posted overseas, only to realize how dangerous life actually is!

In fact, the strangest thing about AFN programming is that commercial-based commercials are not just NOT required, but they are not even allowed by law; the stations/channels are fully funded through other means quite distinct from advertising.  This means that AFN really doesn’t have to provide those “commercial breaks,” but feels compelled to do just that.  To an excessively annoying degree.

So one has to ask:  why?  “They” want you to believe it’s for your own good, that “they” are just being mindful and helpful.  But certainly there are a whole host of other not-so-hidden agendas.  The constant reminders about “being safe,” while based on good intentions, can’t help but be interrupted as nothing more than a lack of trust.  The limited programming and military-hooah-centric and one-sided news is clearly a way to mold young minds and push pre-conceived notions and conclusions about the business of war and peace, DoD-wide.  And while Fox News at least pretends to be “fair and balanced,” AFN offers no such pretense or disclaimer.

Fairly Unbalanced

Fairly Unbalanced

In AFN’s defense, they have gotten better.  I was actually shocked to see BBC news offered as part of their highly limited spread, which of all things, offers at times quite contrary viewpoints to news and media seen in America.  However, I remain resolute in my analysis – and in my complaints of AFN programming.  After having been on-island for just three days, and having the radio and TV on for an infantile portion of that time, I am resolved that any car we purchase have MP3/4 capability, and that once off-base, we buy the most diversified satellite cable TV available on the island.

Freedom and the TLF Cable both cost a Buck-o-Five

Freedom and the TLF Cable both should cost a Buck-o-Five

Choice is important in a democracy.

Limitations are most often self- and artificially-imposed, the result of lack of vision.

And this retired military dependent refuses to be controlled.

Elvis and His Honda Steed on Okiwana

Elvis and His Honda Steed on Okiwana

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming….