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Tokyo Turn-On
Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Far Eastern Economic Review
December 1, 1994

Life during the bubble economy was good in Japan. But the bubble has since burst, deflating with the stockmarket in 1989, but a few remnants remain. The bubble, says this book, produced much more than US$25 cups of coffee.

In the heyday, one heard little about the "speed tribes," Karl Taro Greenfeld's term for the rock stars, right-wingers, juvenile delinquents, porn actors and computer nerds that star in his book. Whether the speed tribes (a translation of bosozoku, Japan's benign counterpart of the Hell's Angels) appeared simultaneously with the bubble economy is not the point. But Greenfeld's dispatches tell us one thing: today's trendy Tokyoites aren't much interested in the Japan Inc. that spawned them.

There is a sizable cast of misfits here. Each chapter takes up the case of one particular tribe, told through representatives. Take 17-year-old Dai, subject of the chapter The Motorcycle Thief. He hated school, hated cops and saw drudgery in the sushi-shop job that waited for him. He started stealing motorcycles in Tokyo for fun. He zipped through the narrow streets on hot bikes until he and a friend got caught, then did time in spirit-breaking correctional facilities. After cruel slappings, forced confessions and lots of tears, Dai wanted to change. He ends up at the sushi shop, scared stiff and resigned to joining the family business.

There is Keiko, a dreamy 20-year-old who wants to see Australia's Statue of Liberty. The midnight hours find her shimmying at a disco in her "body-conscious" outfits, and sleeping with whomever takes her to his place. Keiko routinely catches an early train from Tokyo back to the suburbs, to put in a face-saving appearance in her own bedroom before going back to Tokyo to start her dull work day. "The workplace is the wrong place," Keiko thinks to herself. "Give me the nightclub anytime... there I know where I stand."

The speed tribes are made up of bored, rebellious and bad kids. Their non-conformity isn't unique, but it is interesting. The fact that this is Japan, a country whose educational standards are routinely touted in the Western press, and whose social conformity is famously inflexible, gives these sketches a counter-intuitive kick. When Tokyo University students, once known for their activism, make statements like "I will be there if I'm awake" (about a protest against Japan's participation in United Nations peacekeeping), one gets the idea that something is changing.

Greenfeld does not attempt to explain how Japan's Generation X sprang out of their cradles and into Tokyo's discos and drug parlours. The author is at his best as an informed narrator and portraitist, or a literary case worker on Japan's 15-to-30-year-old set.

Speed Tribes is not without flaws, however. One wants to learn in what context the powerful ex-war criminal and gambling magnate Ryoichi Sasakawa, for example, dubbed himself "the world's richest fascist." And are most Japanese between 15 and 30 years of age (there are 25 million, notes the author) "often more adept at folding a bindle of cocaine or heroin than folding an origami crane"?

"Look at me," says Snix, a 25-year-old computer addict who rarely leaves his tiny apartment. "Maybe I am the future."

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