Speed Tribes Revisited – An hour with Karl Taro Greenfeld

This article was originally published on figure8productions.com on November 19, 2004. The documentary film by Jamie Morris has since been completed and is available for sale online. I strongly recommend reading Karl Greenfeld's books, including Speed Tribes, the subject of the interview below.

Life in Japan is certainly not a constant whirl of sushi, sumo, and tea ceremonies, as many foreigners expect it to be. Everyday life is very different for the Japanese people and their overseas guests. How to define that life is the common problem faced by most cultural experts, with some coming close and others missing the mark completely.

When Figure 8 Productions started discussing a possible documentary about the bosozoku motorcycle gangs, one particular author came to mind: Karl Taro Greenfeld, who wrote “Speed Tribes”, a collection of short stories about young people living in the “real, sexy, gritty Japan”. The title of the book is a translation of the word “bosozoku” and, to date, the most fitting. It encompasses the gangs’ love of modified motorbikes, cars, and trucks, and the feeling of belonging that this common interest creates. The tribes of young men and women tell the story of a Japan that is never seen in the country’s tourism brochures. It’s a story that most adults brush off as youthful exuberance, as a fad, and yet the phenomenon persists to this very day. Not a month goes by without some mention of the bosozoku in national or local media.

As the documentary comes closer to completion, the story of a section of Japan’s “folk devils” has evolved in our minds. Jamie Morris, the film’s director now on location in Japan, doesn’t judge the young people he is filming. The aim of the project is not to glamorize Japan’s seedy underbelly; nor is it to skip over what is genuinely interesting about Japan’s modern society. The aim of “Speed Tribes” is to tell a story about people at a particular point in time, living out their dreams to the best of their abilities.

Again and again, over the past year, I have found myself thinking of the characters in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s book. Written in 1994, the author, then in his late twenties, described the lives of young Japanese men and women after the economic “bubble” had burst. In doing so, he captured the essence of Japan’s disaffected youth as it evolved in troubled times. What is remarkable is not the frank depiction of a country’s underworld, but rather that the youth manage to adapt to such hostile environments. Very few of the characters seem to gain materially or spiritually from their dubious lifestyles, and yet they are not judged for their failures. In short, the feel of the book is neutral, just as a documentary purports to be. This left me wondering about reality: how much of “Speed Tribes” is “real”? How did the author research the topic and get so close to the characters? Am I the only one asking myself these questions? There was only one solution: I had to ask him.

On a sunny November afternoon in California I spoke with Karl Greenfeld. I left Japan last year. He left more than ten years ago. Would we have more perspective, or would we be “out of the loop”? Armed with a few general questions, I got much more from the conversation than I expected.

“Do you know what drifting is?” Karl Greenfeld asked me. “It’s the hottest motor sport in the world!” After professing my ignorance, I was treated to a five-minute explanation of the “illicit underground sport”. Drifting is the technique of controlling your car while it glides sideways (yes, at 90-degree angles!) on mountain curves and, more recently, on circuits. “It’s kinda like power-sliding, but more intense”. Unsurprisingly, drifting originated in Japan, where it was a late-night scene to rival “chicken runs” of the 1950s. It’s evolved into a big money sport, with its own D1 super league. It’s even crossed over to America, where it’s seen as the next skateboarding or surfing craze. I thought about practical things, like the consequences for a car’s clutch, suspensions and tires, then got lost in images painted by the voice with the Californian accent.

Just as quickly as I’d entered a new world, I was yanked back out. Greenfeld seemed curious: in a world where drifting is the next big thing, why would someone still be interested in filming the bosozoku? He asked questions about Figure 8 Productions and our contacts with actual bosozoku members. “My contacts are mostly stale now”, he said. “Tats would be about thirty now”. Tats is the character in the second chapter of the book, bearing the same title as the book. He’s the acting head of the Tokyo chapter of the Midnight Angels, a motorcycle and hot-rod gang that revels “in noise and spectacle and disturbing the quiet, orderly operation of Japanese society.” With his zoot suits, traditional wooden sandals and slick pompadour, Tats is quite a striking figure. His story gives a greater understanding about the bosozoku gangs from a member’s point of view. The nineteen-year-old reminisces about the infamous Shonan run, when nearly four hundred Midnight Angels took over Shonan Beach, near Enoshima Island. Two days of debauchery led to the bosozoku being demonized in the Japanese national press, and gave them that edge that will probably always seem attractive to disaffected young people.

Bosozoku

“Tats is now an OB and I haven’t seen him for years” Greenfeld told me. “The book was written at a time before mobile phones came around” (An OB, or “Old Boy” is an former gang member who stays in contact with the newer, younger members, and imparts experience and advice.) This statement touched off an interesting discussion about “Speed Tribes” and its legacy.

The most pressing question in my mind concerned the veracity of the book. One only has to look up Greenfeld on the internet to find a conflicting array of opinions and so-called facts about the author and his stories. From claims that the facts are incorrect to people doubting that he ever came into contact with real bosozoku, the chat rooms of Japan’s gaijin (foreign) on-line community have been buzzing with speculation for years. Karl Greenfeld feels mystified and baffled by the passions his book seems to arouse.

Speed Tribes” was born when Greenfeld discovered that the Japan he inhabited was not the Japan he was paid to cover for foreign publications. One night in Tokyo, he was on the verge of breaking up with his girlfriend when a motorcycle gang of about twenty-five kids interrupted his train of thought with the ear-splitting roars of their engines. Flying the Rising Sun flag and wearing kamikaze aviator suits, the bikers could not be ignored. Neither could their story.

Karl Taro Greenfeld “landed a job covering trade agreements and visiting dignitaries for the English-language spin-off of Tokyo’s leading daily newspaper.” While the previous scene with the bosozoku’s dramatic entrance at a climactic moment was not the defining moment, it did confirm that “covering Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and other visiting dignitaries” was not all it was cracked up to be. “The other stuff, like the bosozoku, was more interesting… the stuff that’s not Important with a capital ”I” but important, you know?” “The book was put together from magazine pieces for American and British publications.” A quick scan of the copyright section of “Speed Tribes” reveals that portions of the book appeared in Arena, Details, FHM, The Face, The Los Angeles Times magazine, The Nation, and Wired.

The chapter on Tats appeared as a piece about the bosozoku for Details magazine. Greenfeld quickly confirmed my suspicions that the book was actually a piece of investigative reporting, using “new journalism” or “literary journalism” techniques. “Some of the characters are real and some of them are composite characters. They were people I knew of, friends of friends… Tats is real. The body con girl [Ed.: story of the young woman wearing body conscious clothing when she goes out clubbing “Keiko: The Early-Breakfast Club”] was, like, a composite of three girls. There was no single person who told the whole story.”

As for the motorcycle gangs, “we rented a van and went on one, no, two runs with the bosozoku.” It was nothing like he expected: instead of action and excitement like in “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando, the bikers were “incredibly slow… they blocked the highway and just stayed there.” There was no confrontation with the police or onlookers. “It was like a parade or something. All noise and spectacle… It was very anti-climactic.” The story about the infamous beach run was relayed by Tats who reminisced one day, just as he did in the book.

Hanging out with the bosozoku, Greenfeld drew some parallels with “Saturday Night Fever”, a comparison which took me by surprise. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense. The movie’s about “a bunch of Brooklyn kids who aren’t exactly delinquents but are fearsomely tough and cynical and raise a lot of hell on Saturday nights. They live for Saturday night, in fact.” The movie was based on the article “Tribal rites of the new Saturday night”, by British Rock writer Nik Cohn, about the New York Disco scene in 1975. The blockbuster movie sought to fictionalize the article, though the article itself, ironically, turned out to be a fabrication, to which Cohn confessed twenty years later. Does this make “Saturday Night Fever” any less iconic for the Disco movement? Does it lessen the impact of the story of those Brooklyn kids who tried to escape their mundane daily lives?

This is probably the central issue with sub-cultures like the bosozoku: the Japanese kids, who gather into tribes of motorcycles enthusiasts and raise hell at the weekend, are trying to redefine themselves and their place in society. Much like kids in the West in the 1970s, they are coming to grips with a world weakened by economic recession and social shifts. They dream about what their lives could be, if granted an opportunity, and much like the punks of 70s England, they are willing to tear at the fabric of their society if none is forthcoming. Like the punks, they use symbols from the past to shock or give meaning to their cause. The punks used Nazi swastikas though they rejected Nazi ideals. The bosozoku use the Rising Sun flag and kamikaze imagery, though they clearly share little with Japan’s militaristic past. Beyond this academic analysis of the youth’s sense of belonging at the heart of a sub-culture, it is important to remember that it’s fun for them. They may work dull day-jobs and live at home with their parents, but the gangs offer them “relief, rejuvenation and excitement," Greenfeld says.

When I ask him if the bosozoku and various sub-cultures have a valid place in Japanese society, Karl Greenfeld sighs. “I don’t know!” he says, sounding exasperated. “People say that the Japanese copy a lot of trends, but Japan takes existing trends and plays with them. The result is something unique. The Japanese show ingenuity in their reinterpretation. It comes down to the imagery the kids create, which then influences others… It’s a cycle.”

The cover of “Speed Tribes” (Harper Perennial edition) shows a group of young Japanese guys, easily recognizable to anyone who has spent time in Japan: the Rock ’n’ Roll dancers of Yoyogi-koen, a park in Shibuya, the heart of young Japan. “I hate those guys! They’re the least original group of young people in Japan. They’re just like the stereotype everyone has of the Japanese copying a culture without adding anything to it. They have the worst imagination,” Greenfeld exclaims. The famous photographer, Dan Winters, came to Japan to shoot a music-industry story for Details magazine. Greenfeld’s publisher found out, and arranged to use the shots he took of the dancing guys in the park. While the photo is good, and Winters is a gifted photographer, it’s easy to see why Greenfeld is upset: the “Junk’s” Rock ‘n’ Roll dancers do not fit in with the young people of “Speed Tribes” in the slightest.

As to the popularity of “Speed Tribes” in Japan, I was surprised to hear that it has never been published in Japanese. “Kodansha (Publishing House) messed it up. They got a translation that they weren’t satisfied with… It just never got published. I think the rights have reverted back to me now.” Will the book ever be published in Japanese? “I don’t know… it was a little bit ahead of its time,” he says. In the meantime “Speed Tribes” is a cult classic amongst Japan’s foreign readers, affording them a deeper appreciation of the youth culture that surrounds them, yet which they might not really understand. The book usually passes from hand to hand, making it difficult to tally the actual amount of people who have actually read the book. Do Greenfeld a favor and buy a copy of the book if you liked it, or buy it for a friend. While it’s hard to find in bookstores, it’s readily available online at places like Amazon .

When asked about his time in Japan, from 1988 to 1993, Greenfeld is somewhat wistful. “I had a pretty serious drug problem. Since then I’ve got plenty sober.” His former drug problem comes as no surprise, as it is well-documented in his writing. His “Tokyo popped” and “Speed Demons” provide a cautionary tale about the perils of living on the edge. His life in the “gritty, sexy, real Japan” proved to be too gritty in the end. “It just didn’t go the way I planned,” he sighs.

It seems strange that one of the most influential authors of Japanese underground literature should have regrets. His words still resonate among young people from all over the world trying to make sense of their lives and experiences. “Speed Tribes” remains a hard and penetrating look at Japan’s rebellious youth, a minority often overlooked or ignored because it can be uncomfortable if one looks too long or probes too deep.

These days Karl Greenfeld is an Editor-at-large for Sports Illustrated. He lives with his wife and two kids in New York and crisscrosses the country for the sake of his writing. The only tribe he belongs to now is his family. When I ask him how he will present Japan to his children, he explains that his wife is German, so their children will primarily be exposed to American and German culture, while Japan will always remain a personal “source of ancestral wonderment.”

He has written another novel, “Standard Deviations”, which he’s very proud of. “It has less sociological relevance, but the writing is better,” he tells me. In the book, he tells the story of his time in Asia, when he was riding high on the economic “bubble”, living a life of excess. His next book will be somewhat of a departure for Greenfeld: “Plague: The Inside Story Of The Sars Virus That Nearly Crushed The World” (working title) is a work of non-fiction, slated for release by Harper Collins in April 2005.

As our conversation winds down and Karl Taro Greenfeld reflects about his time in Japan and the story of “Speed Tribes," he’s still puzzled by the whole experience. “I’m just a guy trying to raise a family… I’m not rich or anything. People think I got rich from writing “Speed Tribes,” but I’m still driving around the country writing for a living… Back then I was different. Arrogant, yes. A jerk, maybe… But now I’ve changed. My life is very different now. I’m just a guy…”

And “Speed Tribes” is just a book…