Bosozoku--the feared motorcycle gangs of Japan. You'll hear them coming a mile away, exhaust pipes flaring to a primal beat. And their uniforms are equally iconic: oversized drop crotch pants stuffed into black boots, heavy work jackets worn open at the chest and elaborate kanji embroidery displayed like yakuza tattoos to show group affiliation. Bosozoku boast that they inherited the samurai spirit from kamikaze pilots. At the very least their outfit, the tokko-fuku, takes its name from the WWII flight suit.
When you see someone in tokko-fuku tearing down the street, you head the other way. So how did we end up in a karaoke room with a perpetrator who fits the description? No worries, he's more of a threat to himself than he is to us. Our man, Yoda Takuji--known in some circles as Midnight Panther--takes the social suicide pact one step further by embroidering anime girls on the back of his jacket. But he's not the leader of a pack of delinquent nerds--he's just dressed like it.
If you think the slicked-back pompadour and sunglasses make him look more like an extra from Grease than a gangbanger, you'd be right. Sort of. In the early '70s Japanese bikers adopted the Elvis-with-a-switchblade look from their hero Yazawa Eikichi, vocalist and bassist for the seminal rockabilly band Carol.
Yazawa's life is a true rag-to-riches story. Born in Hiroshima on September 14th, 1949, his mother left home and his father died from radiation poisoning, leaving young Yazawa in the care of his aunt. Down but not out, his struggle growing up poor resonated with juvenile delinquent yankii, those disaffected youths from blue collar families. They were the rough crowd, the deadbeats, the no-goodniks--the kinds of people Yoda went to high school with.
Yoda grew up in Yokohama, an industrial port town southeast of Tokyo that's rougher than its reputation. The anime-loving Yoda kept his hobbies secret from the toughies that took him under their wing. They rode motorcycles around town--without a license, naturally--and more importantly, went to lots of Yazawa concerts. See, tokko-fuku aren't just for motorcycle clubs. They're also worn by Yazawa groupies who form their own gang of rock n' roll cheerleaders. Yoda was keen to join the club. He got his own jacket, the first of many costumes he would own.
By the early '90s Yazawa had grown into a mainstream artist, which led him to ban the intimidating tokko-fuku from shows. Yoda, not belonging to a proper bosozoku group himself, had only one place left to parade his duds--Comic Market. Better known as Comiket, the semiannual event is Japan’s largest gathering of DIY manga artists, with crowds of over half a million visitors and 35,000 exhibitors over the three-day convention weekend.
His first act of civil disobedience: dust off the tokko-fuku and cosplay as the hero from the popular bosozoku manga Bukkomi no Taku. But people didn’t run in fear. Instead, they flocked to him. “It made me pretty popular,” Yoda recalls with a titter. “Girls wanted to touch my pompadour. It turns out that fujoshi (female nerds who are into homoerotic romance) love bad-boy characters.” And the attention made him bold.
Yoda started showing up in full bosozoku regalia at concerts for Tokimeki Memorial, a PlayStation-era title that popularized the dating simulation genre. The audience was there to see the voice actresses behind their virtual girlfriends, not deal with real-world violence. The crowd shrunk away. Yoda could have started a successful extortion racket. Instead, he played it cool and became an urban legend. By the time Love Plus, the next big dating sim, rolled out, the fan base had come around to celebrate Yoda as a minor celebrity.
“I never intended to be a part of the community,” Yoda remarks, thinking back to how he fell into fandom. “When I got my first real job after high school, I quit anime and manga cold turkey. But in the late '90s I found this manga, Mamotte Shugogatten, and it was so soothing to read,” he recalls of the romantic comedy.
“The heroine, Shaorin, is so down-to-earth. I saw in a magazine that the title was green-lit for an anime adaptation, so I wrote a congratulatory message on a message board. Next thing I know, people start replying to me and I became the center of the Internet community. They must have thought, 'He's one of us, we can't let him go!'”
For hardcore fans, anime isn't a hobby, it's a lifestyle--and with the way Yoda once “quit cold turkey,” perhaps even an addiction. This intense obsession is what separates an otaku from a casual nerd. It's all or nothing. “When I stopped being otaku, I threw out my entire collection--all the signatures from voice actresses, all the plastic models, all of it. There weren't any worthwhile titles at the time and I lost interest. I was able to stop because I was no longer emotionally involved.”
But Yoda's pushing fifty. He comes from a different generation with outdated standards. Things aren't so hardcore anymore. Kids proudly call themselves otaku even if they only read mainstream titles such as One Piece and Attack on Titan. Hatsune Miku and anime theme songs top the karaoke charts. Pretty much everyone sinks time into free-to-play smartphone games. Japan is growing up otaku.
In the same way that The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and superhero movies have normalized geek media in the West, Japanese teens are free to consume anime and manga without too much social stigma. But they're not turning to anime because it’s cool--it's for the lack of an alternative.
Famous youth fashion photographer and magazine editor Yonehara Yasumasa pointed this out when I spoke to him in August 2013. “Otaku don’t get bullied for being nerds anymore. Yankii listen to idol music, yankii play video games--yankii are otaku. Back in the day, delinquents could join bosozoku gangs. But the cops clamped down on that scene, so geeking out is their only option.”
Bosozoku have another strike against them: They've become a cliché. In the early '80s photographer Satoru Tsuda took pictures of real cats dressed in tokko-fuku acting out yankii cliches, such as smoking in the boy’s room, playing in a rock band and riding motorcycles. The resulting Nameneko series was Hell’s Angels meets Hello Kitty and it struck a blow to the street cred of tough guys everywhere.
The macho posturing of Japan's road warriors has been deflated to fit into bags of store-bought novelty costumes. Yoda may be playing a character, but it's partially a self-parody. He reaches into his pocket for a prop, waffling between brass knuckles and glow sticks. He knows he looks ridiculous. Too bad idol fans don't.
Yankii have adopted the uniform to show support for their favorite member at idol shows. The Yazawa cheer squads have returned, except now they’re on Team Mayuyu, Team Yukarun, or Team Wasamin. As Yonehara explains, “Eight years ago you would've gotten beat up for being an AKB48 fan. But the kids from that generation are now in high school, and yankii have come to accept idols as a normal part of life.”
He forgot to mention that AKB48 fans do the beating up these days. Last August four high schoolers held up a college student for his wallet. What did they need the money for? When the cops caught up to them, the leader confessed that he wanted an embroidered tokko-fuku for an AKB48 handshaking event.
A jacket runs around 50,000 yen at a custom embroidery shop--chump change for Yoda, who drops twice that per garment. Cost isn't an issue, but the vibe at the venue is. “Going to an idol show all about chants and choreographed moves--it's too structured. That's not rock 'n' roll.” He sounds pretty resolute for an otherwise nervous guy.
Yoda doesn't want to follow the rules, but he doesn't want to break them either. As we photograph him on the streets of Akihabara, each shot needs to be fast lest we draw attention. Police have been cracking down on suspicious persons following the 2008 stabbing spree, and although public cosplay may not be against the law, it's a good way to get harassed by the cops.
We duck into a grimy alley and he pops a squat, the classic yankii pose. “If only I had a cigarette. Then I’d really look the part,” he jokes. I offer to buy him a pack and he declines. “No, smoking on the street is illegal. What if someone sees the photo and starts a flame war?” He has a point. After all, the guy has an image to protect.
Written by Dave Kracker
Photos by Dan Szpara