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Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation

Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation

4.5 2
by Karl Taro Greenfeld

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This foray into the often violent subcultures of Japan dramatically debunks the Western perception of a seemingly controlled and orderly society.


This foray into the often violent subcultures of Japan dramatically debunks the Western perception of a seemingly controlled and orderly society.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
A grippingly fresh portrait of an unseen country...As faces and stories accumulate like mosaic tiles, Japan's netherworld emerges with almost unbelievable vividness.
Kevin Roddy
Americans duped into believing that Japan has few social problems outside of political corruption, horrendous university entrance exams, and the suppression of women into lifelong menial jobs and unsatisfying lives as caretakers for their husbands will be shocked by some of Greenfeld's revelations: widespread methamphetamine use among youth, a booming pornographic industry (as a result of Japan's foray into sexual freedom), and a skyrocketing juvenile larceny rate. Organized crime is a problem also; the Yakuza is being replenished with disillusioned youth from the country's youth gangs, and its proliferation on the Japanese mainland and its rapid expansion overseas are frightening. The "speed tribes," or "Bosozoku", is a catch-all term that refers to the plethora of diverse youth subcultures that have spawned as a result of Japan's famous "bubble economy." Japan's obsession with things Western intensified during the boom in the 1980s (now predicted to crash sometime in the 1990s) and is proving disastrous to its social fabric. A day in the life of a computer hacker, the "hostess" industry (with few remnants of the geisha tradition that preceded it), and a motley crew of unconventional Japanese youth as they go about their unconventional and sometimes reckless lives are some of Greenfeld's other subjects. Fascinating reading, will make many Americans rethink stereotypes they may have about the Japanese.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
6.11(w) x 11.11(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mitsunori Izumi, twenty-nine, sat on an imitation leather chair in the Wakao Wrecking Crew offices, sipping Bron brand cough syrup from a brown bottle and trying not to stare at the big, square Hino Truck Company clock on the wall directly opposite him. He had caught a cold five days ago when he fell asleep in the front seat of his air-conditioned Nissan Sylvia while parked outside a Shimbashi mah-jongg parlor waiting for his kumi-cho (gang boss) to finish gambling and drinking. When Izumi awakened at seven that morning Kumi-cho had already gone; he hadn't even bothered to wake Izumi and dismiss him.

The cold became a bad cough and he read in the papers about something going around called the Korean Flu. He bought the codeine-laced cough syrup so he wouldn't have to give up smoking for even a day. And the codeine soothed his nerves.

The seventy-eight-year-old grandmother of the proprietor of the Wakao Wrecking Crew brought in a pot of green tea and a dish of sweet bean cakes. Izumi smiled up at her, his crooked teeth showing beneath thick lips and a twice-broken nose. Over his narrow, dark eyes his black hair was cut close to his scalp. He thanked the old lady profusely and nibbled one of the bean cakes out of politeness.

Outside the offices, an '87 Honda with a bashed-in front end made a crunching sound as Wakao let it drop from the tow winch. The small parking area around the office was crowded with battered, rusting auto hulks hauled there by Wakao or one of the tsukaiipa (errand boys). If no one claimed the wreck for two months it would be chopped and sold for parts.

Izumi, dressed in tan golf pants, a no-name polo shirt, and imitation Gucciloafers, took another slug of the cough syrup, shivering slightly as the heavy, brown fluid slid down his throat. He was waiting for an errand boy to come back with a rental car. One of his girlfriends had taken his BMW, another was driving his Nissan Sylvia up to Saitama to visit her mother. He couldn't rent a car himself because he had left his licenses and credit cards—all forgeries—in the Nissan. He had an important meeting across town with his kumi-cho and didn't want to be late.

He capped the cough syrup bottle and dug a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. He lit one with his gold Dunhill lighter and snapped it shut with a click.

Wakao entered, wearing a dirty green jumpsuit.

"Where's the punk?" Izumi asked.

Wakao shrugged and lit a cigarette. "He'll be back," he said, exhaling.

Izumi looked up at the red-and-blue Hino clock. Four-thirty.

In another two hours, maybe three, he would be back in the trenches threatening to bust heads collecting money for his gumi—Yakuza gang. The thought of it all—or was it the codeine in the cough syrup?—nauseated him.

Tokyo, a metropolitan area with a population of over twenty-five million, is the richest market in the world for young entrepreneurs eager to interest the public in new consumer goods and equally rich for hustlers eager to bilk the public through games of chance, drugs, or extortion. Mitsunori Izumi is a rank-and-file soldier in the sixty-member Kobayashi-kai, an organized crime "family" directly under the Tsuguta-kumi, a two-thousand-member Yakuza syndicate, one of the nine reputed to control Tokyo rackets. Izumi runs three off-track betting operations called Nomu-kaypa (money-drinkers). His setup is little more than a few telephones and account books in three small Fukagawa apartments in Tokyo's old downtown. His income largely comes from his percentage of what the money-drinkers can imbibe. Izumi's three money-drinkers man the phones all day Monday through Sunday, taking bets on races at any of ten major racetracks scattered throughout Japan.

Izumi's accounts, like most Yakuza-run money-drinkers, are based on a point system. A gambler sets up an account via a face-to-face meeting with Izumi, often referred by higher-ups in the family. Izumi awards the gambler twenty points a day with which to wager. Each point has a different value, depending on the bettor. Some gamblers have *20,000 ($182) points, others *2,000 ($18) points. Only the bettor and Izumi know how much each point is worth. It's a polite way of setting limits—and of simultaneously making the bookmaking process smoother for insiders and inscrutable to authorities. Before each race, Izumi's three money-drinkers fax him lists of bettors and the points they have put down. (After faxing the bets, the money-drinkers burn the original slips. They use very delicate paper, much like toilet paper in consistency, so that it can be swallowed if the police start banging on the door.) Izumi then figures whether he can cover the bets himself or if he will need to lay some off through his kumi-cho at headquarters. For that service, among others, Izumi pays 20 percent of his earnings in tribute.

But money-drinkers and horse players comprise only a fraction of the Yakuza's $35 billion annual income.

The name Yakuza means eight-nine-three, a losing hand in an old card game. The traditional Yakuza businesses, besides gambling, are extortion, narcotics trafficking, prostitution, and protection. (Izumi also runs drugs for the family, small amounts of shabu—methamphetamine—and marijuana.) One of their well-known extortion rackets is the sokaiya; hoods buy one share of blue-chip stock and announce their intention to attend that company's annual shareholders meeting and ask embarrassing questions or create a disturbance. This tactic deliberately plays on the Japanese distaste for confrontation. Corporate boards will buy off sokaiya and even pay them protection money to ward off other sokaiya. According to a recent National Police Agency survey, nearly one-third of two thousand companies that responded admitted they still pay sokaiya annual amounts of up to *100 million ($910,000).

However, in recent years the Yakuza have taken their own seats on the boards of major corporations. During the time of the bubble economy, no one could resist the easy money to be made in real estate and stock market speculation and gang bosses became major shareholders in legitimate corporations. At the time of his death, Susumu Ishii, former chairman of the Inagawa-kai, one of Japan's leading crime syndicates, owned 2.9 million shares of Tokyu Corporation, 1.85 million shares of Nippon Steel, 1 million shares of Mitsui Kinzoku, and .5 million shares of Nomura Securities. Reportedly, he had his sights set on a takeover bid of the Tokyu Corporation, a major department store-railway conglomerate. The value of Ishii's shares was well into the billions of dollars.

"This is the ultimate type of intellectual violence practiced by the Yakuza," says a spokesman for the National Police Agency. "The money made illegally through traditional methods—gambling and protection—can now be legitimized through buying shares on the stock exchange."

Despite new laws intended to curb the Yakuza by declaring their very organizations, not just their criminal activities, illegal, organized crime continues to thrive in Japan. Japanese politicians have traditionally been reluctant to crack down on the Yakuza because of the clout they wield in running labor unions and delivering votes. A seat in the lower house of Japan's Diet, the primary legislative body in Japan, can be decided by a few thousand votes. And in those districts where the Yakuza are known to have a heavy interest, large numbers of suspicious, timely absentee ballots have swayed elections. In 1986, an unusual surge in the number of absentee ballots cast in the No. 1 district of Ehime Prefecture decided the fate of that election; 23,500 absentee ballots were cast, 18,000 more than in the previous election. Absentee ballots accounted for 10 percent of the total turnout. Says a former Dietman of the 1986 ballot, "Several thousand yen were paid to the gangsters for each vote. The strategy was very effective."

Yakuza connections with the uyoku, fanatic ultra-rightist fringe parties, are another instrument for exploiting and intimidating Japanese politicians. A U.S. Embassy official in Tokyo described the right-wing movements as "so intertwined with organized crime it's hard to take them seriously as political movements." Yet no member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's powerful conservative party, would deliberately risk alienating the uyoku. Even Shin Kanemaru, a conservative politician with a long history of anti-Communist rhetoric and legislation, was stabbed by a right-wing fanatic who was irate after Kanemaru's talk of normalizing ties with North Korea. Even more ominous was the 1989 shooting of Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima by Seiki Juku, a right-wing organization with Yakuza ties. That group had said they found Motoshima's criticism of the emperor as "a grave problem. He had to be stopped."

Meet the Author

Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of seven previous books, including the novel Triburbia and the acclaimed memoir Boy Alone. His award-winning writing has appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories 2009 and 2013, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. Born in Kobe, Japan, he has lived in Paris, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, and currently lives in Pacific Palisades, California, with his wife, Silka, and their daughters, Esmee and Lola.

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Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
reminiscent of articles found in the tokyo journal during that time frame. those who appreciate japanese culture will surely enjoy.