Book Report: Speed Tribes

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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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 7, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. wintersweet Says:

    Thank you–I’ve always thought this book was horribly overrated, and not a good example of either journalistic or academic research or writing.

  2. jed Says:

    Thank you. This was an excellent post. Indeed it is high time that people like Greenfeild and the sensationalist reportage/fiction as fact school are dethroned

  3. check Says:

    …and perhaps the most alarming aspect of Greenfeld’s novel is that his outlandish attempts at selling the Japanese underground earned him a snug position as the editor of Time Asia.

    Hookers, drugs, and gangsters! Now there’s an accurate portrait of Japan…

  4. narcoptik Says:

    I’m in absolute agreement with your sentiments. I’d have to say that I’m wary of all ‘reportage’ after having read this and Mezrich’s “Ugly Americans”. Anyway, although not specifically about the Japanese, that book manages to mangle and distort the “facts” so much that one has to wonder if the author watched ‘Black Rain’ one too many times. At least Greenfeld can claim to have actually been there…

    Looking for some light reading about the sugoyabakute world of Tokyo youth culture? One would be better off reading Almost Transparent Blue. It’s fiction (or is it?) and it’s set in the 60s/70s era, but the writing is absolutely gorgeous and it’s scads better than Bosozo…er I mean Speed Tribes.

  5. Sho Says:

    Why did you even bother reading it? Surely you knew in advance that this book, like every single other comparable book ever published, is just one big wank. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it some pretentious wanna-be anthropologist trying to demonstrate how “cool” he/she is by expounding ad nauseum on his/her deep submersion in some sort of “hip” culture.

    I recall you saying, in the first post I ever read on this blog, that you wouldn’t automatically befriend any gaijin in japan that you wouldn’t in america. Bearing that admirable sentiment in mind, do you think you would take such an interest in similar books about American youth culture?

    Sure, I guess at some point you were an American youth, and never a Japanese one, but still. I’d view any such book about my own culture with unbound contempt. I can’t imagine how simply making the Japanese the subject makes it any more interesting, valid, or uselful.

    OK, I realise I’m speaking about the genre in general whereas you’re focussing on this specimen in particular. Doesn’t make it less of a waste of time.

  6. ls Says:

    What are your thoughts on Almost Transparent Blue and the film Love & Pop about enjou kousai?

  7. marxy Says:

    Why did you even bother reading it?

    Actually, I had never heard anything about the quality of the book, and felt like it was one of those volumes I would have to crack open at some point in my life. Like Japan as Number One.

    Almost Transparent Blue

    I’ve never read any Murakami Ryu. My Japanese literature professor in college (and translator to Murakami Haruki) said something to the effect of, “Murakami Ryu isn’t literature.” I’m not one to really care about literary importance, but it probably subconsciously pushed his works to the back of my to-do list.

    Even if Murakami is wrong in describing Japanese subcultures though, at least he’s honest about his work. He’s a novelist.

  8. Sarmoung Says:

    Hmm, I knew my share of the people that are woven into Greenfeld’s narrative. I’d agree that the book has its shortcomings, but as a piece of social history I think it stands. Yes, he’s writing from a very particular (ad)vantage point within Tokyo, but I’m not sure that’s of any less importance to the record. There’s no shortage of literature (from Francis Xavier on) about people’s experiences in and reactions to Japan. This blog is one of them and may yet be similarly pilloried ten years down the line for its obsessions and interests.

    Speed Tribes, warts and all, is a work of its time amidst all the others published around the Bubble era. There wasn’t a huge amount on the bookshop shelf at the time other than the glut of books about the wonders and perils of Japanese management practices and the like, or the more traditional accounts of culture shock in the country, aesthetic activities in Kyoto and so on. So, yes, it becomes an “accidental primary source” for the metropolitan high life of the time with no other account from that period and from quite the same demi-monde to balance things out.

    Obviously it’s a crap book to read about what’s happening today,
    But it takes more than a couple of good books to somehow make Speed Tribes work irrelevant. Yes, “how Karl spent his Saturday nights” tells us very little about the modern Japanese woman, but I didn’t read this book when it came out expecting that it would.

    (Then I read what I’ve written so far…) I don’t think Speed Tribes is necessarily a good book, it may well be a bad book. But bad books are of no less interest in examining perceptions of Japan.

    (Actually, I think Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld (that is a good book!) makes a interesting companion piece to Greenfeld’s since the former is in part to do with the establishment of Roppongi as an entertainment district.)

    Marxy: That’s a little snarky about the translation in the title! I’m not clear why it’s a “poor man’s” translation. Would you care to offer an improvement?!?

    I’d start writing about this very subjective notion of authenticity in youth culture but I’m tired so I find it doesn’t matter. Which is kind of what I was hoping to say about it anyway…

  9. marxy Says:

    This blog is one of them and may yet be similarly pilloried ten years down the line for its obsessions and interests.

    This is a fair criticism.

    There wasn’t a huge amount on the bookshop shelf at the time other than the glut of books about the wonders and perils of Japanese management practices

    True, and I understand the importance of the topic in the context of the times. I’m just not sure that the demi-monde of Roppongi circa ’90 was really Japan’s most unique culture in need of exposition. Even his chapter on bosozoku – not Roppongi-related – cuts out the historical development of that subculture and just goes for the drug and gun narrative.

    I’m not clear why it’s a “poor man’s” translation. Would you care to offer an improvement?!?

    “Speed Tribes” is not a “literal” translation of 暴走族 as he claims in the book. The 暴 means violence, wrecklessness on top of the speed implied in 走. I’m not sure there is a clean translation, but why even bother? Most books just use the original word bosozoku.

  10. jasong Says:

    I remember reading the book back when it came out (’95?). I was about to defend the title until I read that KTG said it was a literal translation. I thought it was a good title because it wasn’t literal, but more feral, capturing primitive and modern, addiction, closed subcultures (not closed to the author, of course). Wasn’t there a section in there about, or related to, Johnny’s? Give him credit for reporting about it way before anybody else.

    It was the only English lang. snapshot of Japan at that time and in those environs — it’s not the writer’s fault that other people didn’t go the distance and give alternate views. But to paraphrase what Sho said, it’s definitely part of that tradition of pseudo-journalistic writing where the author (subconsciously?) wants people to be in awe of their penetration into a previously inpenetrable subculture. I guess his half-Japanese ancestry helped him escape getting bopped on the head by these guys. Here’s a photo of Mr. Greenfeld doing his best 竹内力 impression: http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020401/bz2.jpg

    Here’s another more autobiographical (and even more fetishistic?) KTG book that I hadn’t heard of:

    http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio/0375502769

    Marxy, was your professor Jay Rubin? A very respected translator, I would’ve thought.

  11. marxy Says:

    Rubin is very interesting. Anybody who takes the time to translate Nozaka Akiyuki’s “American Hijiki” is A+ in my book. For the record, he also dislikes Yoshimoto Banana and seems to have a grudge against Oe (probably for the old man’s snobbery about Murakami Haruki). This literature thing is very political.

  12. Dave Says:

    Murakami Ryu is pretty good. I don’t quite follow how the other Murakami could be literature and not Ryu. (On the other hand, as I recall, Oe and a few others of previous generations didn’t classify *either* as literary writers.)

    A few years back, I seem to recall that Oe changed his mind about Murakami Haruki – I can’t remember whether it was before or after he published the Wind Up Bird Chronicle that addressed ‘serious issues’ (unlike previous Murakami Haruki books, which didn’t meet Oe’s ideals for seriousness.)

    Have to say I wouldn’t call Speed Tribes a fantastic documentation of a subculture, but I don’t quite follow what’s to bitch about. He had something to say, and said it…

  13. der Says:

    (This thread makes me realise that it would be great to hear more about Japanese literature here…)

  14. marxy Says:

    I know a cursory amount about Japanese lit, but it’s not really my field of expertise.

  15. narcoptik Says:

    Hmm, it’s interesting to me that Murakami Ryu is not considered ‘literature’ in some circles given that, even through terribly dated translations, his descriptions come across so hauntingly. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks so. But then again, I also like Warhol’s pop art, and most ‘artists’ are probably happy he’s dead…

  16. Chris_B Says:

    wow I’d totally forgotten about this book, I think I found it from KTG doing a piece in an early issue of Wired, or maybe it was an exerpt. IIRC I read this a while after I first started reading William Gibson and so it sort of fit in nicely but I cant remember if I took it as reportage or good bullshit at the time.

  17. alin Says:

    Murakami Ryu is not considered ‘literature’

    i think part of the reason may be simply that he writes too much. (like araki makes photography books, like takeshi does television). having said this most people i know agree that reading a ryu book takes a fraction of the time it takes to go through a haruki book of the same size.

  18. Figure 8 Says:

    Because he writes, in the prologue, stating that “…the Japan he was COVERING…” was very different from the one he was living, it may have implied that the book is more of a journalistic endevour than it really is.
    If you are interested in more than just abrasive comments then visit my web site:

    http://www.figure8productions.com

    We have interviewed Greenfeld and Sato (Kamikaze Biker) __news section__
    I’m making documentaries about subcultures in Tokyo including Bosozoku and Uyoku.