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Part XXXXII Noise Makers and the (Invisible) Man

May 8, 2000

Why is it that all public pieces of art in Japan are either Tim Burton-esque abstract horrors or naked caucasian women?  There is a surprising plethora of the latter, especially near train stations.  It seems to be the decoration of choice.

Which brings us to another facet of Japanese culture that seems to locate itself near train stations:  the bosozoku.  Everyone has heard of the Yakuza, the general term for organized crime in Japan, but few have heard of this much more visible group of rowdies.  Literally "noisy group," the bosozoku ride around on REALLY loud motorcycles, going VERY slowly (they usually stay below 15 MPH, with occasional bursts to 100 MPH if they feel like weaving through traffic), and ignoring pesky things like traffic signals and police cars.  Many of them also wear egregiously decorated one-piece jumpsuits and lots of jewelry.  If Liberace had been into NASCAR racing, this is what his mechanics would have worn.

The thing is, they don't actually DO anything.  Sure, there have been rare incidents of picking fights, and maybe they yell threateningly a lot, but they are basically just bored teenagers and twenty-somethings with too much time on their hands and nothing to do on a Friday and Saturday night.  It is also true that the bosozoku is a training ground for the Yakuza, and they are on very good terms with each other.  I have heard that when the Yakuza wants a show of force somewhere, they sometimes tell the bosozoku to show up in large numbers.

The one thing they do do, quite often, is make noise.  As I mentioned above, they like to ride their motorcycles real slow, and they love revving their engines.  Apparently they don't care if they themselves go deaf, as long as they can interrupt some conversations along the way.  They also think they look really cool (they've got that "look at me, I'm cool" expression on their faces normally reserved for professional athletes).   This gets quite annoying, particularly when they choose the small hours of the morning to have their fun.

And the police do nothing.  I've seen the bosozoku doing their thing in front of police stations, in front of police officers, and even in front of a police car with its flashing lights and sirens.  They didn't speed up at all -- they just revved their engines louder to drown out the siren (which they accomplished admirably, the motorcycles having been chosen for their ability to produce decibels rather than horsepower).  The excuse I have heard is that there are too many of them and not enough police, so the police are powerless (or afraid).  In my opinion, the real reason is that they have ties to the Yakuza, which is probably the most powerful single force in Japan.

Imagine how powerful organized crime would be in the States if it hadn't been broken down into the Italian families, the Irish mafia, the Chinese mafia, the inner-city gangs, etc., but was all under one umbrella.  Now imagine that state of affairs being entrenched for more than 100 years, and you have the Yakuza.  They train young people and then get them hired all over the economy, so that there are members of the Yakuza in every major industry, indeed in most major companies in Japan.  Iíve been told that these people are promoted a little faster than others, and as they get more powerful, so does the Yakuza as a whole.  It is cyclical -- the ones in power use their influence to promote others so that the group as a whole becomes more influential.  It is also the smoothest-running organization in Japan, because it isn't bogged down with bureaucracy and paperwork.  And if you don't think that they aren't really that powerful, consider the following anecdote:

I was speaking with a JET from another prefecture (state) and he told me that the high school at which he teaches has even worse behavior problems than my junior high school.  As you may remember, I had good reason to doubt his word.  He then explained that after a teacher attempted to discipline a student, that student called his older brother, who is a member of the Yakuza.  The brother came to the SCHOOL, screaming furiously, and threatened bodily harm to the teacher and his family if any further discipline was attempted.  The teacher meekly accepted the situation, and did not call the police.  The Yakuza is far more powerful than the police, so what was the point?  Of course, this did not encourage the student to stay on his best behavior.

In Japan, a good gauge of how powerful a group or person is is their lack of media attention, quite the opposite of the States.  The most powerful in Japan are also the most invisible.  Consider this:  the prime minister had a stroke and fell into a coma more than a month ago, and still there has been no public statement regarding his health, and they managed to hide the fact of the stroke itself for nearly 24 hours.  In the States, we know the names of public figures' pets, as well as their preferences regarding foreplay.

Given how widespread the Yakuza is, and how much influence they have, it is interesting to note that in almost two years I have not read one word about them in the Japanese media.  Even the "free" media tread lightly, or not at all, where the Yakuza is concerned.  Unless they are very drunk, Japanese people donít even joke about the Yakuza.  The bosozoku, as visible of a problem as it is, has been mentioned only once to my knowledge.  Last year there was an important international diplomatic conference in Kobe, and the hotel that had been chosen was near a bosozoku gathering place.  The government didn't want the foreign diplomats to know about the bosozoku problem (and their lack of response to it), so for that week only they tried to keep the bosozoku out of the area.  I did not read whether they had any success.

Basically, if anyone messes with one who has paid for protection, they are in serious trouble, both financially and physically.  However, I have also been told that the Yakuza does a lot of good.  Rumor has it that they are major contributors to charity, and if you are member your family is very well taken care of in case of illness, death, etc.  Also, once a city (!) has paid for protection, the Yakuza can bring very profitable business contracts into that city.

A bully with a heart.  How nice.