Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation

By Karl Taro Greenfield

For some people, the sociology of motorcycling can be even more interesting than the motorcycles themselves.

The quaint image of hardworking Japan Inc. is fading. The meteoric rise to the pinnacle of economic achievement is now called the "bubble economy" for the way it popped, and as we all know now, Japan has cults and biker gangs. In fact, for many Americans, an early glimpse into the fringe subcultures of Japan was the existence of Bosozuku, young bike gangsters who terrorized the streets at night while doing odd things like wearing ladies slippers. The fact that some grow up into Yakuza was heartening to me, when I first heard about them, since I know for a fact that I'd blow up under the pressure of Japanese society.

Speed Tribes is a series of vignettes that take place on the fringes of Japanese society. Motorcycle thieves, Bosuzuku, the pornography business, bodicon girls, and drug dealers trying unsuccessfully to rise to the social position of their clientele, to name a few. Greenfield is a young Japanese-American with an eye for detail, and the perfect viewpoint for illustrating the cracks in Japan for us gaijin readers. Today's image of wild rebel motorcyclists that shaped social situations of the contemporary biker in America today has a parallel in Japan. There's little doubt that riding a motorcycle, lest we forget, is the

wildest mechanical sensation widely available, and it attracts a certain psycho-graphic segment of the population: The thrill junkies.

For some people, the sociology of motorcycling can be even more interesting than the motorcycles themselves. I already know way too much about Harleys, for instance, but I can always sit down and re-read Hell's Angels by Hunter Thompson for little glints of insight. And I still don't feel like I know enough about the British cafe racers, although I do know that I'm never going to have the time or patience to put together my own Triton.

I feel lucky to have been a motojournalist in Southern California, where I could firsthand learn about the ironic workingman life of the motorcycle couriers, and the small but dedicated group of street-fighter bike builders haunting the boneyards of L.A. I learned quite a bit about Bosuzuku by living with a former member in L.A., but Speed Tribes was a real treat for me. It explored the life on an academic level, disguised by nicely paced fiction. For lost souls reeling in the meaningless life of the 90's, motorcycling is a rare chance to be master of it all for a moment, and it's nice to be able to come back in after a ride and be part of a group of people who understand.

At any rate, Speed Tribes is a must for anyone interested in the culture of motorcycling. True, maybe only a fourth of the book is about moto-culture, but it's all good reading. Greenfield's tight prose gives unequaled access to Japan's underground, which is a culture that should prove to be more and more influential internationally in years to come. And although it's not by any means a thorough dissertation on the underground biker scene in Japan, it's the closest anyone has come so far in English.

Motorcycle Online Rating: ***1/2
Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's next Generation.
By Karl Taro Greenfield.
286 pages, no illustrations.
ISBN 0-06-017039-5
Suggested price: $13.00
HarperCollins Publishing
10 East 53rd Street, NY 10022

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