Young, Fast And Deadly

Japan's teenage biker gangs were once seen as little more than night-time rebels. No longer: With violent crime soaring, society is coming to regard them with real alarm

By Velisarios Kattoulas/TOKYO

Issue cover-dated February 1, 2001

SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT on November 25, four men driving home through northern Tokyo honked at a teenage motorcycle gang weaving across the road and clogging traffic. They were about to wish they hadn't: The thugs before them were members of the Dragon, a 300-strong bike gang that is a constant menace across Tokyo, Yokohama and Chiba Prefecture.

Pulling over, 23-year-old Eiju Cho stepped out of the car to confront the young toughs. But before he got much said, 30 bikers surrounded him. He was knocked to the ground, and for a full 20 minutes pummeled and slashed with baseball bats, short swords and knives. Two months on, police have yet to arrest his killers. But his excruciating death has helped crystallize growing fears in Japan over an explosion in juvenile violence.

While Japan is often renowned for stoicism in the face of adversity, a five-year spike in violent teenage crime has left many short on patience and eager to apportion blame. Fingers have variously been wagged at politicians, big business, the media and at parents and schools; in short, at practically every segment of society. Yet while introspection may be warranted, an examination of internal police documents and interviews with teen killers, gang leaders, senior police officers and top organized crime figures indicates the continuing surge in serious teenage crime is mainly the result of an unlikely collision between a plummeting birth rate, teen bike gangs known as bosozoku and a stinging crackdown on yakuza organized crime syndicates.

Not surprisingly, killings by unstable teenagers get the most public attention. Yet police statistics show the clear majority of serious youth crime--murder, manslaughter, assault, extortion and robbery--is in fact committed by bosozoku gangs like that which killed Cho. The National Police Agency's most recent data shows that in 1999 these speed tribes were responsible for more than 80% of serious juvenile crimes.

Though the NPA insists that no more than 40% of Japan's 1,000 bosozoku are linked to the yakuza, in private senior police officers say the real figure is probably much higher. A recently "retired" leader of one Tokyo teen gang estimates that in and around the Japanese capital--home to 40 million people, or a third of Japan's population--a staggering 80% of bosozoku gangs pay Japan's tattooed mobsters cash tributes of between 50,000 ($430) and several hundred thousand yen a month. One ex-bosozoku member, who is now a top organized crime boss active nationwide, says that ties between the yakuza and bosozoku are equally strong elsewhere.

In any event, serious bosozoku crime has risen dramatically in recent years--more than doubling since 1996. "What the statistics show is that compared to Japan's 100 million adults its nine million 14-19-year-olds are nine times more likely to commit crime and face arrest," says Kazuhiro Sonoda, the head of the juvenile crime division at the National Police Agency. "In other words, the juvenile crime problem here is huge."

Oddly, the decline in Japan's birth rate may be contributing to the problem. "When there were more teenagers and bosozoku gangs were bigger they could protect their territory simply by force of numbers," says Isao Nishioka, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about the problem. "These days, that's no longer the case. So the gangs are increasingly resorting to violence. That's why increasing numbers of bosozoku are using bats, steel pipes, and knives, whereas 10 years ago they used their fists." Typically, each gang now has just 25 members.

Ties between teen gangs and the yakuza weren't always close. When bosozoku first took to the streets, in the mid 1960s, they were dominated not by knife-wielding thugs but by rebellious teenage car and bike enthusiasts. Dedicated to pushing their machines to the limit and flouting authority, they gathered at night and played hide-and-seek with police along the nation's roads. Once they neared their 20s, though, most members quit.

At the time, the yakuza gave the bosozoku little thought. In the 1960s and 1970s Japanese law and widespread prejudice still barred Japan's burakumin underclass--mainly descendants of undertakers, slaughterhouse workers and leather tanners--and ethnic Korean and Chinese from good jobs, creating a pool of embittered potential yakuza recruits. Since the yakuza worked openly alongside police and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to crush left-wing dissent, they faced virtually no official opposition.

If yakuza leaders thought of the bosozoku at all, they saw them as annoying, nerdy teenagers, ill suited to organized crime. From the mid-1990s, though, yakuza bosses have been virtually begging bosozoku members to sign up for full body tattoos. In part, that's because a series of legal changes opened up new professions to burakumin and ethnic Chinese and Koreans, and decimated the yakuza's traditional post-war recruiting pool. Moreover, an unprecedented, decade-long police crackdown has left the yakuza hurting financially.

At first, many bosozoku welcomed the yakuza's overtures. "Because bosozoku gangs have shrunk the past few years, many aren't big enough to take care of themselves in fights any more," says 21-year-old 'T', the former head of a Tokyo bosozoku gang, who served a 16-month sentence for manslaughter. "So they ask the yakuza to watch their backs, or for help resolving battles with bigger rivals."

Over time, though, virtually all come to regret their ties to the big boys of Japanese crime. Police maintain that cash-strapped yakuza often squeeze money from bosozoku under threat of violence, charging them "road tax" for riding their bikes, and forcing them to buy amphetamines and tickets for yakuza-backed events at inflated prices.

Often the only way for bosozoku to meet yakuza demands and save their skin is crime--typically theft, extortion and assault. In one much-publicized case, in November, police arrested 19 teenagers for nearly 100 muggings, assaults and thefts around Nagoya, and discovered a significant chunk of the take had been paid to local mobsters. In another, early last year, two of Tokyo's biggest teen gangs went head to head in a gang war police first thought was over defaced graffiti. By April young toughs from both sides were defacing opponents' gang logos almost weekly. Their much-scrawled, and still visible, refrains contained a blunt threat to kill. It was no idle promise. Late one night in May five teenage thugs set off for the heart of opposition territory. They arrived around midnight, and before fleeing they stabbed and beat to death a passerby they mistook for a rival. Police now believe the deadly gang war was motivated by both gangs' need for more turf to meet hefty "protection" payments.

As bosozoku interaction with Japan's mobsters has grown, not only their crimes but also their acts of public defiance are becoming more audacious. As recently as two years ago, most bosozoku made their mark by riding around in late-night motorbike convoys; crudely modified, their bikes emit a deafening squeal familiar to virtually every Japanese.

Such self validation--as clinical psychiatrists refer to it--remains popular. But since early 1999, bosozoku thugs have also taken to disrupting street festivals. Typically, between 200 and 1,000 masked teenagers, wearing overalls modeled on Imperial Army uniforms, show up drunk, high and riotous. In the biggest incident to date, in downtown Hiroshima, in November 1999, around 1,000 bosozoku members threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at and fought with police for three days and nights in a row. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's biggest newspaper, recently reported there were 37 bosozoku riots between last June and August alone compared with just eight for all of 1999.

Afraid street brawls may represent the future of Japanese youth crime, politicians, the police and civic groups are scrambling to stop the bosozoku in their tracks. Last year parliament revised the nation's juvenile law, lowering the age at which teenagers could be prosecuted from 16 to 14. For their part, the police are pushing for lawmakers to make bosozoku membership a serious crime, akin to belonging to a yakuza gang. Currently all except the most violent bosozoku crimes are prosecuted under traffic laws, meaning sentences are suspended or light.

For now, the police are putting more officers on the street. To stop the annual display of bosozoku force on New Year's Day this year the Tokyo Metropolitan Police formed a special force of 4,300 officers. They failed to completely eliminate rowdy bosozoku from the Japanese capital. But police say that thanks to their heavily publicized crackdown they only stopped 446 bikes and cars carrying bosozoku on the morning of January 1, down nearly two-thirds from the year before. Tokyo police have also taken to monitoring bosozoku movements by helicopter, and police in Fukuoka, southern Japan, are making use of a device made of tape, glue and rope that is laid in the road and stops bikes by wrapping itself around the rear tire. Police hope this will increase arrests. Separately, civic groups nationwide are putting pressure on petrol stands and bike part dealers to turn away customers who belong to bosozoku gangs.

Such measures will probably help. But social critics insist, and the NPA acknowledges, that to reverse the rise in youth crime and keep bosozoku beyond the yakuza's clawing reach, Japan must address two main reasons teenagers join gangs in the first place: a stultifying school system, and the growing instability of many Japanese homes.

In many ways, 21-year-old 'O' is indicative of the challenge Japan faces. Tall and slim with shoulder length hair and hazy brown eyes, he was born and raised in western Tokyo, and started hanging out with motorcycle gang members when he was 15. In part, he blames middle school, which he found geared solely to the bright kids, and insufferably dull. On top of that, however, his father regularly came home drunk and beat O's mother.

"It was just incredible," he says. "I didn't want to be there when he was beating her, and she was screaming. So even though I thought bosozoku gangs were dumb I started going to late-night get-togethers with a friend who was already a member. I never planned to join but the gang kept egging me on, and in the end I gave in." Two years later he was anointed the gang's seventh leader. "I never enjoyed fighting other gangs. But I loved riding around town at night on bikes, outrunning police."

Nevertheless, late one night in August 1997 he found himself on a badly lit Tokyo side street along with 150 other bosozoku from his own gang and another. Tension between the two had been mounting for weeks. So when a rival ran into O's gang by mistake the teenager was pushed to the ground, and with O taking the lead, attacked with knives, swords and baseball bats. Only the wail of approaching police sirens stemmed the blows. "It was all a blur," says O, visiting the scene of the attack for the first time since it happened. "But when I left him, there wasn't much blood, just some white stuff coming from his mouth. I didn't think we'd killed him." After a three-month manhunt, police finally caught up with O, and he was sentenced to 16 months in a juvenile reformatory for manslaughter.

Might tougher juvenile laws have saved the other boy's life? "I wasn't there because the law is tough or lenient. I was there because I didn't want to be somewhere else."

To Yasuhiro Ogawa, a 30-year-old former bosozoku member who now counsels errant teenagers, the overriding problem is Japan's preoccupation with its wrenching economic problems. "The trouble is society at large," says Ogawa. "TV, big business, politicians, the economy, the general irresponsibility of Japanese adults towards kids today. When I was growing up, if you were fooling around in the street, it wasn't unusual for old women you didn't know to slap you. Today, there's nobody to set kids straight. Parents, teachers, siblings, neighbours, everybody's just too busy."