Subculture is sociologically defined as a group that is distinguishable from the wider community in which it operates in terms of shape and structure. This group emphasises certain qualities, principles and material objects and located in it’s own territory (Hebdige, 1979). It is created when a group arises that wishes to separate itself from the main culture.
The concept of biker gangs bring with it connotations of negativity. This group coalesces around the idea of having common bonds, liking for the same things. To many people, the concept of biker gangs is personified by the Hells Angels. However this group is much larger than that, with subsets existing worldwide. Some of these groups have a reputation for troublemaking, dealing drugs and other activities that are against the law. What unifies these subcultures is a particular ethos or else some common values. The framework of the subculture provides guidelines for social interactions within the group.
When examining existing ethnography in subcultures that are consumption-oriented, an apparent symbiotic relationship is revealed between the subculture and the product manufacturer and their support organs. Studies have shown that there are four remarkable features that characterise the relationship between these subcultures and product marketers. These are:
- Innovation in the product driven by consumer needs.
- Mass market mystique
- Identification with the brand in an extraordinary way.
- The subculture transcends national and cultural boundaries.
In North America there exists a subculture based on the idea of consumption with the Harley-Davidson motorbike at its centre. This has brought into existence market segments in tight clusters that come together due to their loyalty to this brand, and what it represents as well as its significance to them.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s saw New Bikers who represented a consumer subculture but by the time the nineties came to an end, they were more of a brand community or rather an assortment of micro-cultures ( Schouten & Alexander, 2007; Thompson and Troester, 2002). As is common with other subcultures (Blair and Hatala, 1991) the new bikers had an edgy countercultural appeal that increased their popularity. It became trendy to own a Harley and this trend was exacerbated by the media, movie industry and Harley-Davidson Inc. who would profit directly from increased sales, profits, the price of stocks as well as prestige. There was a large growth in the number of Harley parade members over the years. However, many of these riders found the Harley Owners’ group a little too orthodox for their taste and this led to formation of alternate groups leading to erosion of authentic subcultural groupings (Thompson and Coskuner-Balli, 2007).
In addition, there was an increased number of riders who were female (Martin et al, 2006) who espoused the principles of freedom, machismo and Americanism but in a different way from white men. Their sense of freedom is dictated by dissimilar cultural restrictions and power structures to those experienced by men. They broke free from the limits of this femininity using machismo to expand the limits of their perceived gender.
According to Thompson (1966) the Hell’s Angels operate with a general lawlessness and are feared by the larger society for that very reason. They tend to congregate in bars to drink alcohol, have a tendency to engage in brutalities, as well as sexual proclivities all surrounded by a motorcycle mystique.
The Bosozoku Japanese Bikers
Bosozoku specifically refers to a Japanese phenomenon involving biker gangs composed of teenagers. They are found in Japan’s major cities of Osaka and Tokyo as well as others where they congregate on the weekend for mass rallies. This group was incepted in the 1950s at the same time that the Hell’s Angels were at their peak as MarlonBrando starred in ‘The Wild Ones’. In Japan, belonging to the Bosozoku is a gateway to joining the Yakuza which is a criminal organisation similar to the Mafia. Unlike the Yakuza however, belonging to the Bosozoku is not a lifelong commitment. Most members leave by twenty years of age and become law abiding citizens. However, a minority go on to join the Yakuza. The character of the Bosozoku is more carefree than violent. Composed mainly of teenagers who are pushing the envelope of experience, they may be portrayed as violent criminals but they are in fact a manifestation of the exuberance of youth and expressions of freedom (Yoshinaga, 2003).
Bosozoku began at the same time that the auto industry in Japan began to expand. They were first known as Kaminari zoku or the ‘thunder tribe’. Their demographic tended to be lower class and their reasons for joining were similar to those that motivate individuals everywhere to join a gang. These reasons span from disaffection with the system, their own situation or the government. So they join a gang to feel part of a larger entity and to turn their backs on convention. They also mainly tend to be under twenty because that is the legal age. Their antiestablishment stance and disrespect for authority distinguishes them from the average Japanese teenager. Those who are dedicated graduate to the lower ranks of the Yakuza after their twentieth birthday (Tofugu, 2012).
The Bosozoku reached their apogee in the 1980s and 1990s when they were notorious for illegal modification of their bikes, noisemaking, creating a disturbance, reckless driving, weaving in and out of traffic, lack of protective headgear, running red lights and speeding. They also used to gather together in their hundreds and ride slowly through neighbourhoods, obstructing traffic and brandishing imperial Japanese flags while contributing to the noise pollution through their illegally modified mufflers. They were also notorious for starting fights, and threatening citizens with wooden swords, baseball bats, metal pipes, even Molotov cocktails. They carried out vandalism of cars and assault those who interfered. They also targeted foreigners (Tofugu, 2012).
Membership of the Bosozoku has declined from highs of 42510 (Kyodo News, 2011) in 1982 to lows of 9064 in 2011 according to the Japanese National Police. This came about because of new laws passed that enabled police to arrest gangs of reckless bikers in 2004. this led the Bosozoku to pipe down and thus membership dropped. There was even a downgrade from riding heavily motorised bikes to scooters (Tofugu, 2012).
Cross- Cultural Analysis
The cultural differences and similarities between biker gangs in the United States and Japan are brought out by this report. The first difference is the age groups of the bikers. In the United States, they tend to be older gentlemen (and Ladies) who can afford the expensive bikes and the lifestyle that goes with it. This could also be due to the fact that the culture of Hell’s Angels had it’s peak in the 1950s during Marlon Brando’s film “the wild ones’ and the people who were children at the time and influenced by this film and the culture of Hell’s Angels are probably the ones perpetuating the culture in contemporary times, hence the reason why they are older. The Hell’s Angels culture seems almost a lifestyle choice that is based on brand consumption of HarleyDavidson and associated products. Even the ‘alternate’ gangs that have been formed still seem to stick to the HarleyDavidson brand implying that it is more about brand identification than disaffection with society in general. However, belonging to the HarleyDavidson fraternity probably gives them a sense of belonging to an entity larger than themselves as well as identifying their choice to be free of ‘normal’ societal expectations. The HarleyDavidson brand does not only offer a transportation device, but also a lifestyle. According to the HarleyDavidson mission statement, there is more to them than just building, and selling motorcycles in order to realise the desires of clients; they try to give memorable experiences. These experiences may include socialising at the Harley-Davidson dealership, enjoying an early evening jaunt with local Harley Owners Group® or even conducting a cross-continental ride. They assert that the secret to the longevity of their brand and the passion it evokes in Harley owners is the very experiences that it offers. HarleyDavidson has committed to creating those experiences and forging relationships with all stakeholders (Grant, 2005).
The Bosozoku on the other hand, tend to be very young people, just discovering who they are. According to Yoshinaga (2003) their activities tend towards rabble rousing rather than criminality as they attempt to buck the system any way they can. Majority tend to leave the gang once they turn twenty and become legal. Their activities seem more geared toward attention seeking and belonging to a rebellious fraternity rather than breaking the law as has been seen by their reduced numbers once it became possible for police to arrest gangs of reckless bikers. They seem to be regarded more as a public nuisance as opposed to an entity to be feared.
Comparing the Hell’s Angels and the Bosozoku, while they are both bikers who view themselves as living on the edge of the law, they are actually quite different in attitude and lifestyle. Many Hell’s Angels have alternative existences with mainstream jobs and lives, living with their families and carrying on day to day activities outside of the biker group (Grant, 2005). Others however, live the Hell’s Angels’ lifestyles, and these ones tend to be of more criminal tendencies than the weekend variety (Thompson, 1966). The Bosozoku also tend to congregate over the weekend to cause trouble but seem to be composed of the more disenfranchised sections of Japanese society (Tofugu, 2012).
An examination of the different ethnographies that distinguish American Bikers from the Bosozoku Japanese riders show that although they are drawn to the subculture for similar reasons; a repudiation of conventional societal norms or seeking of identity by associating with a larger group of misfits. However, their motivations do differ. While the Hell’s Angels are older people who have experienced conventional life and are looking for something ‘more’, the Bosozoku are just discovering life and finding out who they are. Joining the bikers is a way for them to do that. While the Hell’s Angels tend to be in it for the long haul, the Bosozoku seem to have a cut off age of twenty when they leave the gang. The Hell’s Angels seem to be more of a brand consumption subculture which has spread out into other activities, while the Bosozoku do not seem to identify with any particular brand but more of a social subculture that espouses a certain tough attitude. However, the Hell’s Angels have more of a reputation for danger than the Bosozoku who are regarded as more of nuisance.