Hot rod ‘tribes’ roar into the night

It's not a gang -- it's a hobby

by Ryan Nakashima

It’s 2:30 a.m. on a Friday night outside the Shibaura parking area, a thin strip of concrete and pavement stuck to a pillar under the belly of Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge. There’s a flash of red taillights as vehicles speed in. New arrivals are greeted by leather-clad bikers revving their engines, spitting out exhaust from their oversize mufflers.

A parade of racing machines creeps slowly through the gantlet — rows of sleek motorcycles and gleaming cars with racing fins and tinted glass windows. On the far end of the parking lot, tires squeal and engines roar as roadsters race off into the dark.

The ground itself is trembling as cars thunder by overhead. The hosts for tonight’s entertainment, standing around smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of coffee, look like they belong to the bosozoku — groups of motorcycle- and car-riding hooligans who stop traffic with their wild-driving antics, and turn on members who try to leave the pack by bashing them with iron pipes.

But the kids here say it’s not about violence; it’s about tuning their machines and racing in the night. These late-night rendezvous are part of a car-fetish lifestyle in which young people spend hundreds of thousands of yen a year on their beloved machines — on gear as practical as engine-cooling kits and fuel regulators to stereo systems with racks of woofers and body wings that can turn a van into a virtual Batmobile.

“We’re not bosozoku,” says a 19-year-old university student who asks to be called Kensuke T. He is sitting inside the rest building with his group of friends, joking around and smoking cigarettes, waiting until the right moment to ride his red Nissan Fair Lady Z, which is parked outside.

The word he uses to describe the racers is hashiriya, a term that has a slightly professional ring — like sushiya (a sushi chef), or honya (a bookseller).

“There’s lot’s of people called hashiriya. Some race on the Tomei Highway, some go to circuits,” he says. “We go around and around Tokyo’s Kanjosen (loop highway) No. 4. In other words, we’re roulette-zoku.”

Kensuke says while his posse reaches speeds up to 220 kph on their spins, the only danger they pose is to themselves. “I’ve had a fierce fight with the highway wall” at high speeds, he says, but adds, “We try not to cause a disturbance to normal people.”

“If there’s a regular car on the road, we don’t surround them,” he says. “We don’t race if we catch up to a normal car. We try not to get into accidents and as much as possible try not to block traffic. We only race when the highways are clear.”

Police acknowledge that, while they still call groups like Kensuke’s “bosozoku,” they label them the “illegal competitive type” and do not consider them violent like their pipe-wielding brethren, the “collaborative dangerous type.”

But police say such racers get into and cause major accidents, and are a danger to the public because of their high speeds and reckless driving (although they have no hard statistics to back up these claims).

One member of Kensuke’s group, who asked to be identified only as “K,” used to race a new, golden Subaru Impressa (price tag: 3 million yen) until one night two years ago he collided with a highway barrier at 140 kph near Ginza, spinning a full two and a half rotations before screeching to a stop.

“I thought I was going to die,” says K, a 24-year-old engineer. He is out tonight only as a passenger, because ever since the accident he hasn’t gotten behind the wheel.

At first he blames the crash on his “immature driving skills,” then says he lost control because he was going too fast.

When the police came, he recalls being told by an angry officer, “This isn’t a racetrack.” For many young speedsters, however, it is.

Daijiro Inada, 54, the executive director of a company that puts out a line of racing and tuning magazines, says there are plenty of race tracks for weekend warriors, but they are too crowded and, at around 20,000 yen per trip, are “too expensive.”

In contrast, a highway toll costs less than 1,000 yen, and, at least in Tokyo, one can race to one’s heart’s content on the several circular highways in the city, as long as one doesn’t take an exit.

That’s why rest stops like the Shibaura parking area, Yokohama’s Daikoku Futo service area and the Tatsumi parking area have become legendary among street racers.

Inada says with Japan’s high cost of living, many kids put their savings into their vehicles, which become like “their own apartments.”

“If there were nice places to live, people wouldn’t spend so much on their cars, but maybe make their homes nicer inside and things like that,” says Inada. “But there’s no such system in Japan and that’s why everyone is spending money on their cars. And if you spend money on your cars, then there’s got to be some place to run.”

The hashiriya subculture is not just about cars either — it’s about meeting girlfriends or boyfriends, forming racing teams and running with pals. Option 2 magazine’s “All Ranking Special” features items that answer such questions as which spots gals like to be driven to most and which car fragrances are the most popular, and runs plenty of classifieds from racers looking for racing partners of the opposite sex.

But the hashiriya’s passion for cars constantly brushes up against the limits of the law and the patience of people living nearby.

The loud mufflers so many riders enjoy mustn’t exceed the legal 96-decibel limit for cars, which is about half as loud as standing next to a pounding jackhammer. Wheels can’t be wider than the car’s frame, though the wide ones are great for cornering.

And parking and hanging out at all hours in parking areas draws the ire of people like truckers who legitimately need to park there to take a rest. On the night in question, one of the racers in Kensuke’s group, who asked to be called “H5,” has to rush out of the rest building — the police are rounding up cars and his black Nissan Skyline was among those blocking a space meant for large trucks.

Across town on a Saturday night at the Daikoku Futo service area in Yokohama, youngsters who are part of the vanning-zoku blast music and dance, rev their car engines and squeal their tires, all under a giant banner several stories high from the Kanagawa police, asking the youths to respect regular drivers and not park too long.

A low-rider vehicle pops up and down, though there’s no driver inside. Purple and yellow batlike vans cruise through the aisles, while other vans are parked with their back doors up, the owners crouched on the pavement, enjoying the rack of speakers blasting out tunes in the back and watching others dance the Para Para. Couples with toddlers even stroll through the area to check out the circuslike atmosphere.

Police officers at the station attached to the area, which houses rows of vending machines, restaurants and even a McDonald’s, say the kids gathered here aren’t the racing type, that they’re just here to show off their vehicles, blast their tunes and party.

But behind the vans is a row of fast-looking automobiles. Some groups of young men seriously peer at the improvements made beneath the hoods of other cars, with a few even exchanging name cards.

Racers from Shibaura say when the fun dies down, the Daikoku futo service area is a jumping-off point for some racers. And Kenjuu Masahiro, the manager of the Golden Service restaurant at the rest area, says just outside the area is where racers start “time trials” and spin their wheels before taking off. “The smell of burnt tires is awful,” he says. While some of the hashiriya are paying customers, he says, “on the whole, they are troublesome.”

Police have been stepping up their efforts to crack down on the racers. Last month, an interagency government group dedicated to “eliminating bosozoku” agreed they would pursue a number of measures, from counseling students not to join bosozoku groups to considering the construction of physical obstacles such as barriers or road surfaces that make it hard for racers to ride. Every summer, police across the country have a campaign to round up and fine owners that have made illegal alterations to their vehicles.

There’s some indication their efforts are succeeding.

Police say the numbers of racers are decreasing — having dropped to 4,365 last year from 9,624 in 1995. Inada agrees that the number of racers is probably shrinking, but with circulation of all his racing magazines at about 150,000 per month, he figures there must be 1 million racers across Japan.

Inada acknowledges that most people quit racing after they get older.

Kensuke T says he got his Nissan Fair Lady Z from his older brother, who quit when he was 27. “It was like he thought, ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’ ” Kensuke says he is not sure about continuing to race when he graduates from university and gets a job.

K quit racing early on in life after his brush with death. He doesn’t own a car anymore and has stopped driving entirely. “I can ride in the passenger seat” while on a late-night tear, he says, “But I’m still too scared to drive.”

Inada says, however, that there will always be those ready to test the limits, and with a steady part-time job at Japanese wages, almost anyone can join the race.

“In the past you had to study really hard and get into a good school or you had no future. Nowadays, you don’t have to have a good job at a big company,” Inada says. “Kids see their parents get laid off when companies restructure, and so they think it’s better to just do what you want.

“If you like cars and you can afford to play with them, that’s all you need.”

How much do you spend every year on the car you love? (116 surveyed)
Over 2 million yen 5
1-2 million yen 17
500,000-1 million yen 34
300,000-500,000 yen 26
100,000-300,000 yen 22
Less than 100,000 yen 12
(Option 2 data)

Fueling the need for speed

Option 2 magazine appears to openly support racing on public roads, walking a fine line between freedom of speech and what amounts to promoting an illegal activity.

A photo spread in the March issue shows a group of “Zeroyon-zoku” racers being waved on by a starter, all obviously on a public street with traffic lights and crosswalks in the background.

One photo in the spread pokes fun at two policemen parked in a marked van near a racers’ gathering spot, with one officer asleep at the wheel.

Inada says the magazine is just playing a journalistic role like any other publication.

Option 2 Deputy Editor Nobuyasu Kachi, a racer himself, says of speeding on public roads, “We know it’s illegal, but we do it anyway.”

Kazunari Takahashi, public relations officer for the National Police Agency’s Traffic Enforcement Division, says police can do little about the proliferation of Internet home pages and magazines promoting bosozoku racing on public streets other than going to posted events and arresting or dispersing those caught in the act. Once, a commercial video was used as evidence in arresting a group for reckless driving, but such cases are rare because identifying offenders and proving they broke the law based on a video or photo is difficult, he says.

Glossary to the racers’ galaxy
Drift-zoku Racers who like their wheels to skid on spin-out turns
Rolling-zoku Mainly bikers who like hard turns, winding mountain roads and highways
Roulette-zoku Racers who drive round and round on circular highways
Zeroyon-zoku Racers, mainly in cars, who compete on a 400-meter straightaway
Vanning-zoku Cruisers who turn their vans into eye-grabbing, music-
pounding machines in order to park, blast tunes and dance

Mainly, police warn Web masters promoting bosozoku events if they find them at such events or through e-mail.

“These aren’t thank-you letters,” says Takahashi, insisting the warnings are “strong” despite their lack of legal force. Inada says his magazine offices have never been contacted by the police.

But the Web is a growing meeting place for racing friends as well as a place to develop a new generation of riders.

On one bulletin board on the Carboy Web site, a high school student whose last name is Miki writes, “I’m still in high school, but I love cars. It’d be great if I could make some hashiriya friends. I’m looking for people who’ll teach me about cars over e-mail.”

On the Option Web site, Inada’s publishing company goes for an even younger audience with an advertisement for an “Option for Kids” video, which is due for release this April for 3,000 yen.

“For children 1 to 10 years old,” the ad promises. “We’ll bring in a famous mechanic’s demo car and answer the question ‘What’s tuning?’ in an easy-to-understand way. Your kids will make real progress with cartoon character teacher Daichan!”