Those interested in Japanese youth culture will encounter a very meager selection of published English literature on the subject. After glancing through Merry White’s The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, there’s really nowhere to go but Speed Tribes: Days and Night’s with Japan’s Next Generation — a 1995 anthology of “journalistic” vignettes written by aspiring novelist and one-time heroin-addict Karl Taro Greenfeld. The American author had moved to Japan during the Bubble era to teach English, but he was called to the pen by a compelling need to break the monolithic media message that Japan is a well-oiled social machine. His book aims to give voice to Japan’s “Next Generation.”
Greenfeld unfortunately squandered his big opportunity, and despite the nominally interesting subject matter, the book is more or else a masked autobiography. Each chapter revolves around a different archetype of social delinquent — yakuza, Korean drug dealers, porn stars, ultra-nationalists, hostesses — but the stories are identical. They all live a life centered around drugs and Roppongi and forgotten house music 12″s with all gravity ultimately pulling everything back to Tokyo’s eternally dreadful ex-pat scene. And when Greenfeld is not describing the people who inhabit his small social circles, his writing veers straight into fictional territory: playing the God Narrator and assigning motives, feelings, and desires to the wayward Japanese youth that all essentially echo the same hollow bad-boyism of the author. Perhaps Greenfeld is a sharp observer and empathetic soul to his lovable delinquents, but the myriad of Japanese errors in the book — the title itself is a poor man’s translation of 暴走族 — question the degree to which he was able to fully absorb the meaning of his subjects’ existence. Without hyperbole, Greenfeld introduces young people in Japan as “more adept at folding a bindle of cocaine or heroin than creasing an origami crane.”
Reportage often straddles that thick yellow line between fact and fiction, but when Greenfeld swerves off the road of straight journalism, he forgets to use this technique to actually strengthen his arguments. While there is a case to be made for composites and embellished details, Greenfeld’s obsessive self-projections marginalize the “characters” to the point of super-specificity. The girl who drops the half-dose of MDMA and sleeps with a Australian model hours before meeting a geeky salaryman for a post-omiai date says very little about the modern Japanese woman and a lot about how Karl spent his Saturday nights. (And actually, his later admission of serious drug addiction in this era should cast a long shadow over his ability to truly write a level-headed account of contemporary Japan that lived up to journalistic ethics.)
From a historical angle, the book has become an accidental primary source for the last throws of Colonialism in Japan — a topsy-turvy world where Japanese men were bequeathing diamonds and Ferraris to Commonwealth hostesses in exchange for their flesh. A few years later, the most elite Japanese were no longer trying to outdo the foreigners under the same stale conventions, but stripping Westerners of their taste-making roles and rewriting the rules of the game. In Greenfeld’s world, arrogant, high-society Tokyoites still party with the (automatically cool) foreigners in Roppongi discos. By 1998, all self-respecting Japanese had fled the area, leaving the ex-pats with their collective guide-book delusion that Roppongi was where Japanese hit the town on the weekends. Ironically, the tides have turned these days and Mori’s palaces have reinvented the late ’80s for a new superficial generation. But the vague nouvelle vague of foreigners in Japan today flocks to Nakameguro and Shimokitazawa — to absorb an authentic youth culture, not the hackneyed debauchery of Roppongi and Nishi Azabu.
Thankfully, there are many excellent books on the market now that reduce our dependence on Greenfeld’s writings. Sato Ikuya’s Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan is an excellent ethnography of bosozoku and yankii, and Anne Allison’s Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club does the same for hostess culture. Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan skillfully weaves a personal narrative about a foreign gangster into deeper issues of political intrigue and underground control in post-War Japan.
In the user comment rolls of Amazon.com, readers ferociously debate whether the contents of Speed Tribes are fact or fiction. The good news is that it no longer really matters.