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Bosozoku Street Style

May 1, 2020


The term 'street style' is highly contested and widely misunderstood; modern day conceptions of the term diminish it to an umbrella term for any style or fashion photograph taken outdoors, particularly those taken on streets and street sidewalks, but the origins of the term are rooted in representations of overlooked and undervalued subcultural styles. Visual/socio-cultural anthropologist and author of Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging states that according to early street style photographers and enthusiasts, true street style photographs must "capture something 'real' that fashion editorial spreads systematically ignore or photoshop over". He emphasizes the importance of rawness and authenticity in street style photographs, and writes that "stylized shots of Russian socialites escaping into Lincoln town cars after the DKNY show fail to fit the bill".

In searching for street style photographs that upheld these values of authenticity and subcultural focus, I chose to focus on a particular subculture that I was familiar with: Bōsōzoku. Bōsōzoku is one of the most prominent and fascinating branches of Japanese subculture. The word Bōsōzoku most closely translates to 'running-out-of-control [as of a vehicle] tribe -- the term is often loosely translated to 'violent speed tribe' -- and represents a youth subculture associated with customized motorcycles. These biker gangs first appeared in the 1950s, during the development of the automobile industry in Japan, and would wander the city at full speed during the night blasting music from their motorcycles. The subculture started out exclusively male, but by the 1980s, many girlfriends of Bōsōzoku riders were introduced to the subculture and started participating. Unlike many subcultural groups, Bōsōzoku gangs operate with full visibility, often participating in exhibitionist acts such as Shinai Boso -- "driving at full speed and showing off in front of the passers by" -- in order to create a spectacle and draw attention to themselves [Tarca, CollectiKult]. It is widely believed in Japan that Bōsōzoku gangs are a direct pathway to the Yakuza -- a Japanese organized crime syndicate -- as they mirror the violent, rebellious nature of the organization and share a longtime alliance [Highsnobiety].



I found these images on the Instagram account @bosozoku.style, an account dedicated to images of Bōsōzoku street style, many seeming to date back to early Bōzōzoku gangs [I was unable to find information on the specific origins of the photos]. They represent the typical Bōsōzoku uniform, the tokkō-fuku -- which translates to 'special attack clothing' -- an elaborately embroidered jumpsuit inspired by those worn by kamikaze pilots during World War II as well as Japanese manual laborers. They are typically adorned with imperial flags, gang logos, and custom kanji characters that represent personalized names and slogans; these customizations are used to "[denote] the intricacies of their membership and allegiances". The suits are worn open and paired with baggy pants and tall military boots. Accessories such as hachimaki -- wraparound headbands -- are also typically worn, often bearing rebellious words and slogans such as 'police be damned' or 'bring it on' [Highsnobiety].

To me, these images are a fitting example of street style. The larger Japanese population is typically very unsupportive of this subcultural group, leading it to be grossly underrepresented in popular news and media. As a result, it is much less visible through an international lens than more commonly celebrated subcultures such as Harajuku subculture. It is much more common as an American to view street styles images of the 'kawaii' aesthetic -- featuring various shades of pink and often excessive amounts of Hello Kitty paraphernalia -- than those of Bōsōzoku youth in tokkō-fuku uniforms. Given the almost ubiquitous pacifist nature of the country and its culture, violent and rebellious groups such as the Bōsōzoku and the Yakuza represent a very raw subdivision of the population, diving deep into the adverse intricacies of the human psyche and rejecting societal pressures to promote a peaceful facade. The photos also seem very 'immediate', as Luvaas and others suggest is a requirement of true street style photographs, and capture real moments from Bōsōzoku gatherings. They are not photos that were styled and artificially situated in street locations, but photos of found moments existing within in the natural setting of the subculture; the Bōsōzoku subculture, being deeply rooted in an infatuation with motorcycles, is visible primarily on the streets. It is for these reasons that I find these Bōsōzoku street style photographs to be a prime model of street style photography as it is meant to be. [USC COMM 396, Trope]

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