CHIBA – The scene at Makuhari Messe would not look out of place at the Louvre — if the Louvre were to pump hip-hop music throughout its galleries and employ half-naked women to pose beside its exhibits.
The objects that the visitors are inspecting with such hushed reverence are cars. But to describe the custom cars on display at the Lowrider Super Show as simply vehicles would come nowhere close to conveying the baroque extravagance of their designs.
“This car has been fully customized from the frame up. It took about four years to complete and cost about ¥12 million to ¥13 million in total,” says Kazuo Ishikawa, the owner of “Thug Player” — a 1963 Chevrolet Impala convertible painted in lavish pastel blue, gold and silver swirls with engraved chrome gleaming from every inch of its spotless surface, right down to the undercarriage.
“I only drive it at really big events,” he adds. “The rest of the time I keep it in the garage.”
The Lowrider Super Show, held this year on Nov. 19, is the biggest event of the year for Japan’s lowrider community. More than 100 vehicles fill the floor of the Makuhari Messe exhibition center in Chiba Prefecture, representing 40 car clubs and shops from around the country.
A lowrider is an American-made car — generally a Chevrolet or a Cadillac — that has been altered to lower the body so that it is close to the ground. The cars are then fitted with hydraulics to allow them to be raised or lowered at the driver’s command, and customized with distinctive paint, intricate patterns and a kaleidoscope of other modifications.
Lowrider culture began in California in the 1940s, when Mexican-Americans who wanted to go against the trend for fast cars altered their vehicles so they could cruise as “low and slow” as possible. Hydraulics were added to bypass a law that prohibited cars from riding lower than the bottom of their wheel rims, and the vivid colors and decorations allowed a community that had endured much discrimination to express pride in its identity.
Then, at some point in the late 1980s or early ’90s, lowrider culture made its way to Japan.
“A lot of people claim that they were the first to have one in Japan, but it goes back about 30 years,” says 38-year-old Yosuke Fukuda, who owns Y-Tech — a shop that sells and customizes American cars in Saitama Prefecture and has been in business since 2000.
“It started with people going to America, seeing lowriders and then importing them to Japan,” he says. “Then the culture grew and the first lowrider appeared at a car show in Japan in about 1992.”
The time, effort and money that has gone into each vehicle at the Lowrider Super Show is obvious even to the untutored eye.
The show cars, with names such as “Smooth 64” and “Low Elegance,” are virtual Faberge eggs on wheels. Each one is polished to perfection and raised off the ground on pedestals, with mirrors on the floor to show off the immaculate chrome underneath.
The barrage of colors, patterns and wild accoutrements makes for a scene of spectacular decadence, and lowrider enthusiasts come from far and wide to see it.
“I think that the cars here are as good or sometimes even better than some of the cars we have in the States,” says Eduardo Garcia, a Los Angeles native now living in Houston who has come to Japan just to see the show.
“There’s a lot of attention to detail and I think they only bring quality cars,” he says. “At the car shows we have over there, sometimes they bring dirty or not as high-quality cars. But at this show I didn’t see anything like that. They invested a lot of time and money. This car show ranks among the top ones that I’ve seen, even in the United States.”
The show competition is split into various categories according to the style and age of the vehicles. There is also a separate and very raucous “hopping” tournament, where cars compete against each other to see which vehicle can bounce highest on the powerful hydraulics packed into the rear.
Fukuda is serving as a judge for the show competition, and he flits from car to car, casting his eye over minute details that cost the owners serious money. “The most important thing you’re looking for is the number of modifications that have been made to the car — the more the better,” he says.
“If you’re going to buy a Chevrolet Impala, first of all it will cost you roughly ¥2.5 million. On top of that, you can pay to get it customized. If you want to have a show car it will cost you more than ¥10 million. Some people just buy the car, get it fixed up and registered and then drive it. If you want it custom painted it will cost you upward of ¥800,000. Candy paint will cost you from ¥1 million. Then an extra ¥500,000 for a mural.”
Some, like Ishikawa with his “Thug Player” creation, will spend so much money on their cars that they become simply too precious to drive on the street. For the majority of lowrider enthusiasts, however, shows are just one aspect of the lifestyle.
Everyone who has entered a car at the Lowrider Super Show is a member of a car club. The biggest, such as the Kanto-based Homies, have over 100 members, while others have as few as five.
Most are based around a geographical center, although friends and relatives may join regardless of where they live. Car club activities generally include cruises and barbecues, with members also sharing technical expertise to save money on modifications.
Most of all, though, the car clubs provide a brotherhood. The uniforms and club plaques proudly trumpet names like Hustlerz, Majestics, Deep Bonds and Radical One, and several families are notable among their number.
“If you have a lot of members, you can help each other out,” says Masatoshi Kubota, the president of Dread Lions, a club centered around Chiba that has around 35 members. “You can get a lot of advice on things that you can’t do yourself, if you’re part of a club.
“We go for a cruise around Chiba about once a month. We don’t go too far, but every fourth Sunday of the month about 10 of us get together and cruise. Then every second Saturday, we have a meeting to discuss what kind of display we’re going to have at a show.”
Car club members generally dress in the same style, and their clothes — like their cars — are heavily influenced by American West Coast fashion. Fukuda explains that African-American and Mexican-American lowrider cultures in California each began with their own distinct styles, and the first Japanese owners simply chose which one they liked and copied every detail.
Standing beside his 1947 Chevrolet Fleetline, with his thick handlebar mustache, vintage Chicano-style Mexican-American suit and replica Tommy gun, Kazuhiko Kurita certainly cuts a striking figure.
“People in Nagoya started customizing 1970s Chicano-style cars, and I saw that in a book and thought it looked cool,” says Kurita, a member of the Pachuco Car Club who comes from Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture. “The people were dressed in Chicano style, and I started to wonder what Chicano people were all about. I started to read all about it and that was how it started for me. I like the cars, the fashion, the music — everything.”
But for some people, Japan’s wholesale adoption of another culture’s style and customs could be viewed as problematic. Mario G. Valadez, an instructor of history at Los Angeles Harbor College, had read about Japan’s lowrider culture and decided to travel to Makuhari Messe to find out for himself.
“There are some people who call this cultural appropriation,” he says. “If you’re benefiting from our culture then we’re getting ripped off. There’s always a power dynamic there. Is this cultural appropriation? Or is this a product of the globalized world that we live in?
“I think it’s a positive thing,” he says. “I think it shows that a culture that grew up in oppression in America is global. This is great. This shows to me, in California, especially in the age of (Donald) Trump, we’re oppressed, but travel around the other side of the world and they’re embracing Mexican culture. Some people have tattoos of Mexican figures. That to me is admirable and shocking.”
But has Japan added its own particular flavor to lowrider culture in the 30 years since it first arrived?
“The model for Japan’s custom culture is America,” says Fukuda. “Something becomes popular in America and people in Japan want it too. That’s still true today and I don’t think that will change. There are some lowriders with a particular Japanese quality to them, but they don’t look so cool.
“If someone in America puts a graphic on their car, people in Japan see it and think it’s cool so they want one too,” he says. “But the quality of the Japanese one will be better. They will add to the original. The line will be sharper. Japan will take something cool from America and improve the quality. Japan will take the components used to make a car hop in America and improve them to make the car hop even higher.”
If this all sounds like a healthy and thriving culture, however, in reality the sheen has lost some of its sparkle. The general consensus at the Lowrider Super Show is that Japan’s lowrider scene peaked roughly 15 years ago, and has now leveled out following a steady decline.
During the boom years, Japan had three specialist lowrider magazines, including the iconic Lowrider Japan. That publication folded in 2010 after a run of 17 years, leaving the free Foe Life, which began in March 2016, as the only magazine currently in circulation.
“The Japanese car world is in a slump right now, and there aren’t many young people buying cars,” says Foe Life CEO and editor in chief Ryo “JT” Takeuchi. “We’re hoping to play our part by celebrating Japanese car culture.
“It’s not just lowrider culture — the whole of the Japanese car world is in a slump,” he says. “Young people in Japan today are removed from car culture. With the economy and the cost of cars, young people just can’t get into car culture nowadays. We have also become an internet society, and people don’t get to see cars like this with their own eyes. They don’t get to ride in them.”
Fukuda, who bought his first lowrider when he was 18 but is now approaching middle age like many other owners, agrees that the lack of involvement among young people is a problem. But he also believes lowriders will survive in Japan even if other custom car styles fall by the wayside.
“In Japan there are lots of different kinds of car culture,” he says. “Some hit their peak and then disappear. For example, VIP cars — you take a Japanese luxury car and put effects under it. You don’t see them anymore.
“The reason why lowriders are still around is that the base is cool,” he says. “A Chevy Impala is a cool car regardless of whether it’s been customized or not, so it will always be around. But with VIP cars, the base car was just a Japanese old man’s car. So if you don’t customize it, it doesn’t look cool.”
And looking cool really is the essence of lowrider culture. Whichever style they prefer, whichever car club they belong to, ask any lowrider owner what they like about it, and the answer will always be the same.
“It stands out,” says Eiichi Matsunaga, the owner of a 1950 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe and a member of the Homies car club for the last 25 years.
“That’s the most important thing — that it looks cool. That’s what attracted me in the first place and that’s still the case now.”