Bosozoku: Japan’s Car-Tuning Subculture

© Speedhunters Ron CelestineCar-Tuning Subculture
Bosozoku represents a far-off bastion of Japanese car-tuning culture that borders on theater of the absurd . . . in the best way possible. How can Boso be explained to the casual observer? Perhaps this: The cars resemble real-life creations dreamed up by wacky cartoonists experiencing bad acid trips. The scene’s roots stretch back to motorcycle gangs of the 1950s, a more sinister criminal gang era in the ‘70s, and then transformed into more of a rowdy car club vibe in the 1980s. Today the outlaw edginess of Bosozoku is gone, and the scene has more of a gritty, grunting Rambo-esque facade with a geeky, goofy Ken Jeong aura beneath the surface.

© Speedhunters Dino Dalle CarbonareRoots
From their 1950s greaser “Rebel Without A Cause” vibe of the early days, the Bosozoku, or “violent speed tribes,” developed a violent streak, going from aggressive riding, the menacing of bystanders, and a little property damage to a proper gang that served as a gateway to the Yakuza and more serious crimes. According to Japan’s National Police Agency statistics, Bosozoku membership peaked at 42,510 in 1982. By this time the scene had expanded to cars, and its level of delinquency had begun to recoil . . . trending to more of an antisocial attitude with fits of reckless driving, wild partying, and general anarchy mixed in.

© Speedhunters Ron CelestineEnter Sandman
At the height of its popularity, the Bosozoku car culture developed its signature look. Taking cues from its two-wheeled forerunners, the scene became best known for its exaggerated styling cues, disturbingly low ride heights, and outrageous exhaust systems. Exaggerated styling in this case means a look that goes beyond reality . . . exhaust pipes that reach for the stars and lip spoilers that extend in feet — not inches — in front of the car. But it was all based in reality.

© Nissan North AmericaKaido Racers
The driving force behind the Boso aesthetic was Japanese race cars from the early 1980s, namely Nissan’s Super Silhouette racers. The Bosozoku took Nissan’s aerodynamic treatments, dialed their volume to 11, and hit the open roads of Japan. The rules of the Silhouette series, which ran from 1979 to 1984, required the racers to retain the stock hood and roofline as well as the doors of their original cars. So, Nissan stacked on air dams and spoilers and added some crazy fender flares. The winged bandits were fast.

© Nissan North America1983 Super Silhouette Silvia KS110
The white and yellow livery of the #23 Silvia is one of the three Silhouette standouts that competed in the Formula Silhouette, a support series of the Fuji Championship. It was driven by the legendary Kazuyoshi Hoshino, who would go on to win the Japanese Touring Car Championship in 1990 and 1993 in the Impul Racing Team Skyline R32 GTR, sponsored by auto parts supplier Calsonic. The #23 and other Super Silhouette racers are displayed at events today and are big fan favorites.

© Nissan North America1983 Super Silhouette Skyline KDR30
Perhaps the most popular and immediately identifiable Super Silhouette race car, Masahiro Hasemi’s Skyline notched five wins in ’83. Although the cars were mandated to retain key stock surfaces, their engines and underpinnings were leading edge for the times, built to FIA Group 5 specs. Hasemi would ride the Skyline wave to the R31 where he won the JTC championship in 1989 and on to the R32 Godzilla models, winning the championship again in 1991 and ’92.

© Nissan North America1983 Super Silhouette Bluebird KY910
The Coca-Cola-liveried Super Silhouette racer rounded out what was known at the time as the Nissan Turbo Corps. Each of these triple threats weighed around 2,300 pounds and were motivated by Nissan’s 2.0-liter LZ20B turbocharged 4-cylinder rated at 570 horsepower. The powerplant motivated Nissan racers that competed in a multitude of race series and made more power than Cosworth DFV F1 engines of the era. Driver Haruhito Yanagida captured the championship in his Bluebird in 1980 and 1982 and helped set the hook for Boso fans throughout the land.

© Speedhunters Ron CelestineGangster Rides?
It’s hard to equate Bosozoku cars with thuggery. This is not the car of criminal enterprise. The prime elements of Bosozoku — the neon colors, spoilers that make snow plows green with envy, and towering wings — do not lend themselves to making a stealthy getaway car. The current Boso landscape is much more tame. In fact, the crimes of today’s Bosozoku ARE their cars. Traffic violations are the order of the day, and writer’s cramp is in the cards for any officer who pulls one of these creations over. It makes a person wonder how many of these cars are even road legal.

© Red BullDekotora
Move over Optimus Prime of “Transformers” fame — Bosozoku has a truck scene. Dekotora translates to “decorated truck,” and these niche rides merged into the Boso collective after a movie franchise hit the screens in 1975. Dubbed “Torakku Yaro” or “Truck Guys,” the plot centered around a trucker and his wildly dressed over-the-road truck. Japan’s truck drivers took the baton and pushed the limit. Dekotora has the aggressive Boso bodywork but the claim to fame is extravagant, over-the-top lighting. Most have standalone generators for tripping the lights fantastic at car shows and parking lot hangouts.

© Speedhunters Mike GarrettBoso Vans
Vans, known as RVs in Japan, have also horned in on the Boso action. These expressions of Bosozoku have the look of a cartoon spaceship that’s a set of thrusters away from taking flight. The rides tend to take an upward trend . . . their lion mane-like styling extends into the air more than out and away from the vehicle. They still play the long-spoiler card, but are less outlandish in this regard. Jeweled colors, a hunkered stance, and wild interiors are common traits, but these RVs don’t usually light up as much as their bigger Dekotora subculture siblings.

© Speedhunters Mike GarrettTakeyari
Takeyari is the proper name for the crazy tailpipes that have become beacons of the Boso movement. The traditional look is lightning bolts that extend feet above the rear bumper. In some cases, the exhaust pipes don’t bother making it to the rear of the vehicle and are routed through the hood and over the roof. This is seen as an evolution of the wild exhausts from Boso bikes of the past, which themselves can be traced to the long pipes found on American choppers back in the day. If you hear the term “bamboo spears” in idle Bosozoku chit-chat, the topic of discussion is likely Takeyari.

© Evan GriffeyExposed Oil Coolers
Another identifying trait commonly seen on Bosozoku cars is an oil cooler placed outside the grille and/or front bumper, with its hoses exposed and on display. At first glance one would think it’s a race-inspired feature, but all the engine gear in the Super Silhouette racers were self-contained. This is another chopper-inspired modification that made its way to four wheels. It has also made the jump to America, where it’s been used for years in old-school classic import builds.

© Speedhunters Dino Dalle CarbonareOnikyan
Translated to “Demon Camber,” Onikyan takes negative camber to positively outrageous extremes. Sometimes called Oni Camber, this mod started with dialing the suspension of touge drifters, but like many things in Japan’s automotive subculture it has been taken beyond functionality — obviously, tire wear is not very high on these enthusiast’s priority lists. Custom, angled wheel hubs make it all possible. This trend took hold in America where it’s known as “Stanced,” and there are car shows devoted exclusively to these types of cars.

© Speedhunters Richard OpieTsurikawa
This term translates into “a leather strap to hang onto” and it refers to the hanging ring handles on Japanese subway cars. Savvy Bosozoku fans began using these rings inside their rides as handles to hang out car windows for general shenanigans and outside as decorative tow hooks. Displaying the Tsurikawa represented an unruly edge because the rings had to be stolen from trains. When used as tow hooks, wearing down the rings was a bragging right — testifying that your car rides super low. Today there are rings made specifically for cars — no larceny required.

© Forza MotorsportsGamer Introduction
For many, the introduction to Bosozoku starts at the gaming console. Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport driving simulator game has had the Super Silhouette racers in its lineup for two or three generations. These cars can be tweaked and personalized in the game’s tuning garage, so players need only add colorful language and crazy driving.

© Evan GriffeyHot Wheels Respectability?
According to official records, the Bosozoku gang count hit a record low of 6,771 in 2015, but the gang numbers do not reflect the car enthusiast numbers. As the gang has thinned the car scene has gained steam . . . proof of this move toward the mainstream is best represented by the Galactic Express, a 2018-issue Hot Wheels pack that features a Dekotora big rig and matching Bosozoku car. How long can these zany rides prowl the open roads? How do they pass motor vehicle inspections? Time will tell, but enthusiasts definitely enjoy the show — while it lasts.

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