The Origin of Zoku

Haikara

Anyone interested in the history of Japanese youth culture is already familiar with the word zoku (族). Essentially meaning “tribe,” the word has been used to mark off a certain subculture from the mainstream and other youth groups. The 1970s working-class motorcycle gangs that terrorized rural neighborhoods in kamizake jumpers were called the Boso-zoku (暴走族) — “The Reckless Tribe.” The late 1970s kung-fu dancers in Yoyogi Park became known as the Takenoko-zoku (竹の子族) — “The Bamboo Shoot Tribe,” in reference to their favorite clothing store, Boutique Takenoko (Boutique Bamboo Shoot).

Not every youth subculture has taken the zoku suffix: for example, Kogal/Kogyaru, Rollers, or the Shinjinrui (“New Breed”) of the 1980s. But the word zoku by itself has come to connote “subculture” in a generally anti-social form: zoku are not just new “consumer segments,” but wayward youth with values antithetical to mainstream society. Zoku feels like “tribe” in the sense that “good society” spied into the wilderness and discovered them in the midst of some jaw-dropping primitive behavior.1

Surprisingly, however, this sense of zoku as “subculture” only dates from the post-war. As Mabuchi Kosuke explains in his book The Post-War History of the ‘Tribes’ 『「族」たちの戦後史』, the word fell into its usage in a somewhat roundabout way. The key lexical element for zoku’s derivation is not minzoku (民族, “ethnic group”) but the word kizoku (貴族), which means “noble” or “aristocrat.” (The word kazoku 華族 also basically means the same thing.)

When Americans abolished Japan’s feudal aristocratic titles (Baron, Prince, etc.) and took hundreds of upper class families off the government payroll immediately following the war’s end, most of these families were forced to sell their property and belongings to generate a source of income. This organized impoverishment of the upper classes was best captured by author Dazai Osamu in his 1947 book The Setting SunShayo 『斜陽』(The Setting Sun). The post-war media found his book the best descriptor of this social phenomenon and started referring to this class of fallen aristocrats as the shayo-zoku (斜陽族). In this case, zoku was meant to reflect the aristocratic zoku, not the ethnic zoku. In other words, “socioeconomic class” not “tribe.”

But just as any American political scandal takes on the suffix -gate after the original Watergate break-in, the zoku suffix became convenient to mark off all new social groups. After the shayo-zoku, there was the Achira-zoku (あちら族) — the select group of Japanese allowed to go overseas immediately after the war, when travel was still restricted. The name comes from these elite travelers’ constantly evocation in magazine and newspaper columns of what culture “over there” — achira in Japanese — is like. The next was the Oyayubi-zoku (親指族) — “The Thumb Tribe.” Interestingly, the very same term has been used in recent years to refer to today’s mobile-phone obsessed teenagers, but the Oyayubi-zoku were originally the first devotees of pachinko. The old version of the game required specific use of the thumb for shooting the balls.

During the same period, there was also the SoLa-Zoku (ソーラー族), which has an incredibly complicated derivation. Before the war, there was the Miihaa-zoku — superficial young women overly interested in popular trends and fads. To create a word for post-war women even more obsessed with pop culture than the Miihaa-zoku, the media indulged in a delicious pun: taking the two notes “So and La” on the “do-re-mi” scale that follow “me” and “fah” (ha, in Japanese.)

The Taiyo-zoku (“The Sun Tribe”) rolled around in 1956 — youth infatuated with young author Ishihara Shintaro, his book Taiyo no Kisetsu (『太陽の季節』, “The Season of the Sun”), and his younger brother Yujiro. This time the zoku designation finally fell into the meaning “anti-social youth,” setting the modern usage. This also allowed for a pun on the original Shayo-zoku “Setting Sun Tribe” since the last two characters matched.

By the 1970s, the Boso-zoku essentially took over ownership of zoku, giving zoku mostly a working-class yankii sub-cultural bent, rather than just “youth” in general. People now refer to “the zoku” in Japanese to mean youth subcultures hostile towards the mainstream.

1 This may be irresponsible linguistic speculation, but the sound zoku in Japanese generally corresponds to words with a negative connotation. The kanjis 賊 — meaning some kind of roving criminal group, whether pirates (海賊) or bandits (山賊) — and 俗 — 風俗 (fuuzoku) meaning “custom” but now used to mean “prostitution” — are also pronounced zoku.

W. David MARX
February 3, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

38 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    I used to assume that pirate was spelled 海族…

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    By the way, this site only features pieces about etymology now. Adjust your RSS feeder category accordingly.

  3. Peter Says:

    Very informative post. Thanks.

  4. Graham Says:

    I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the meaning of 民族 lately. Glad to see 族 is still busy elsewhere.

  5. Mulboyne Says:

    “This may be irresponsible linguistic speculation, but the sound zoku in Japanese generally corresponds to words with a negative connotation.”

    足 doesn’t seem so negative when pronounced zoku – as in 顧客満足.

    Thanks for that. I’d never really thought about zoku. The first time I heard it was probably in madogiwazoku 窓際族 which is a word you don’t really hear so much in the wworkplace these days.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    足 is technically soku, no? The n of the “man” just makes it voiced in manzoku. (Matt T. could clear this up.)

  7. Adamu Says:

    I would agree, based purely on my own experiences, that the word zoku does connote bosozoku more than anything else, but it doesn’t follow that there is a rule linking all zoku to yankii subculture. what about the non-yankii uses of zoku, like ヒルズ族 (Roppongi hills nouveau-riche)? The zoku might be a way to make the group seem sinister, but it’s about as far removed from yankii as you can get.

    In response to comments, 家族 sounds pretty mellow and pleasant to me!

  8. Peter Says:

    Zoku to me connotes grouping or clustering in a general sense. (More specifically, it can have a negative ring to it when applied to roving bandits or the customs of the plebs. Like prostitution and whatnot.)

    “Zoku-ppoi” has a decidedly negative connotation, so I can imagine that, regardless of the kanji assigned to it, the sound ‘zoku’ on a stand-alone basis is probably not positive to Japanese.

    I, too, am guilty of irresponsible linguistic speculation most of the time.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    Do you still see good ol’ fashioned bosozoku around Kanto?

  10. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    (Matt T. could clear this up.)

    Oh no, I’m staying clear of this one. You made your irresisponsible linguistic bed, and now you can lie in it. With Mulboyne.

    For completeness, let me link to Ryan’s Ishikawa/Edo/modernity piece, which mentions the older usage of 俗 (not 族).

  11. Nick Says:

    Reading up on Nishida Kitaro back in school, I was also under the impression that zoku was the term specifically used almost as a direct translation of the concept of Volk. One of Nishida’s wartime essays whose name I cannot place in particular seems to make this explicit connection.

  12. Transpacifica » links for 2009-02-03 Says:

    […] Néojaponisme » Blog Archive » The Origin of Zoku David Marx writes: … there was also the SoLa-Zoku (ソーラー族), which has an incredibly complicated derivation. Before the war, there was the Miihaa-zoku — superficial young women overly interested in popular trends and fads. To create a word for post-war women even more obsessed with pop culture than the Miihaa-zoku, the media indulged in a delicious pun: taking the two notes “So and La” on the “do-re-mi” scale that follow “me” and “fah” (ha, in Japanese.) (tags: japan language marxy 族 zoku tribe etymology neojaponisme) […]

  13. Connor Says:

    Who are the kids in those photos? Why are their shorts so awesome? Why do they look so baller generally?

  14. Mulboyne Says:

    Well, you can’t leave a phrase like “the sound zoku in Japanese generally corresponds to words with a negative connotation” go completely unchallenged.

  15. Puzzled Says:

    If “this sense of zoku as subculture only dates from the post-war”, how is it that “before the war there was the Miihaa-zoku”?

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    That is a very good question.

    There is a possibility that the word was just “miihaa” in the late ’20s, early ’30s and then later in the ’50s they added the zoku, but yeah, that kinda kills Mabuchi’s point.

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%9F%E3%83%BC%E3%83%8F%E3%83%BC

    By guess would be that “miihaa” was an old phrase but got zoku’d after the war.

    Well, you can’t leave a phrase like “the sound zoku in Japanese generally corresponds to words with a negative connotation” go completely unchallenged.

    I would argue that people mentally associate the “zoku” in manzoku with “soku” but that would be hard to prove. At least kanji with the base sound zoku have a negative association.

    Who are the kids in those photos? Why are their shorts so awesome?

    Taiyo-zoku.

  18. M-Bone Says:

    I think that the crew in the right one are Ishihara and others on the set of Taiyo no Kisetsu.

  19. Kimberly Says:

    For what it’s worth, there’s also 続 = ‘continued,’ and I don’t see how that has a negative connotation.

  20. Aceface Says:

    “族”has indeed become a pejorative term in Anthropology and now dissapearing quickly in mass media.The word has tendency of being used to describe ethnic minorities and ethnic groups in the developing countries.(i.g Kurds were called Kurudo-Zokuクルド族which is now Kurudo-Jinクルド人.)But still being used to describe tribal sub-ethnic group(i.g Ruwanda’s Hutuフツ族、Tutsuiツチ族)

  21. Connor Says:

    Wow, I did not know that Ishihara, in addition to being the hilarious racist in charge of Tokyo-proper, won the Akutagawa prize at one point! And had really, really awesome shorts!

  22. M-Bone Says:

    Ishihara did win the prize but that is his younger brother Yujiro in the shorts. He starred in the film based on big bro’s book and became a star on the level of Misora Hibari (I’d actually describe him as a cross between William Shatner and Elvis, as scary as that is). Nobody wants to see Ishihara Shintaro in hotpants.

  23. W. David MARX Says:

    Shintaro was also a bit of a media star back in the late ’50s, so don’t retroactively make him out to be a fuddy-duddy. In fact — and this deserves a whole piece — Shintaro was PTA Criminal #1 for most of his 20s. Parents weren’t a big fan of the part where Tsugawa pops his erect manhood through a shoji to turn on his girlfriend, among other things. Young leftists, ironically, loved Taiyo no Kisetsu, and it was required reading during the Sunagawa protests of ’56.

  24. M-Bone Says:

    “so don’t retroactively make him out to be a fuddy-duddy.”

    Not trying to, but I’ll still wager that nobody wanted to see him in short shorts.

  25. Connor Says:

    M-Bone, I stand as living proof that you are wrong. As long as that photo on Wikipedia is really him, I want to have a bunch of beers with that guy* in the summertime while shortin’ it.

    Nerd Alert: I was reading up on this whole business and found a great essay from the Criterion collection about Taiyo-zoku and “Crazed Fruit.” Worth looking into if you are a fan of film or shorts.

    * According to many surveys taken of the American populace during the 2000 Presidential election this is the most important metric by which world leaders can be judged.

  26. M-Bone Says:

    “I want to have a bunch of beers with that guy* in the summertime while shortin’ it.”

    To each his own. I’d rather do it with Koizumi.

  27. W. David MARX Says:

    That Criterion essay was interesting but had a few factual errors:

    a) “Like the French term nouvelle vague, the word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema”

    This is not true as far as I have read. It was the film version of Taiyo no Kisetsu that really brought Ishihara into the limelight as a pop cultural figure and gave the fashion legs. Before the Taiyozoku, there was a word アプレ族 (or just アプレゲール) for the Aloha-shirt wearing bad-boys of the late 40s and early 50s. The word 太陽族 was apparently coined by Oya Soichi, but surely this was after the film.

    b) “Ishihara won the prestigious Akutagawa prize for new novelists and became a celebrity when his stories were collected in a paperback edition that became one of the biggest sellers of 1956.”

    My understanding was that he became a celebrity when they released Taiyo no Kisetsu as a paperback and the film came out soon after.

  28. M-Bone Says:

    a) you (Marxy) are correct, the essay is wrong.

    b) Methinks that the author of the essay didn’t have / use a good Japanese source for the discussion because Taiyo was not one of the biggest sellers of 56, it was THE biggest at 270,000 copies by year end. In addition, this edition was a hardback. The paperback came out in 57. The book was released just just two months before the film so good luck telling which really sparked the boom.

    Check out the vastly less cool 硬派 anime picture –
    http://www.imdb.com/media/rm128293888/tt0270685

  29. W. David MARX Says:

    Looking from a fashion angle, it was clearly the movie that had the impact since film is visual. In terms of general social impact, you probably cannot separate the film and book.

  30. Aceface Says:

    Ishihara wrote script on many films in the 60’s.But he also appeared on silver screen in Ichikawa Kon’s 1957 film”穴”as a young writer/singer.

  31. M-Bone Says:

    Ishihara Shintaro was only 24 when he hit it big with Taiyo and soon became a top “youth POV” non-fiction writer for various magazines and, if I am not mistaken, his current arch-rival – the Asahi. I like this stuff better than his fiction (well, aside from the shoji scene anyway).

    Am I the only one who has been long fighting an urge to have a friend say “Hey Kool Aid”, and jump through a shoji and say “Oh yeahhhh!” ?

  32. Connor Says:

    Am I the only one who has been long fighting an urge to have a friend say “Hey Kool Aid”, and jump through a shoji and say “Oh yeahhhh!” ?

    I’ll be back in Tokyo in April. Save the date.

  33. M-Bone Says:

    If we could combine that with Koizumi and Ishihara in hotpants, it would be the best manga ever.

  34. Roy Berman Says:

    I remember you told me about this at the party last month and I’m glad to see you posted it.

    “Do you still see good ol’ fashioned bosozoku around Kanto?”
    I don’t even have any memory of bosozoku in Kyoto over the past year, although I saw/heard them kind of a lot back in 2002-4. They were always going back and forth on Marutamachi.

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  37. zamu Says:

    hi, does anybody can tell me which could be the differences between zoku and kei??
    thank you.

  38. W. David MARX Says:

    I was actually thinking of this yesterday. There is a Japanese scholar Koji Namba who wrote a whole paper on the topic.

    In short, -kei came much later and reflects a more simple consumer choice of what style to adopt. -zoku means you are a member of a “tribe,” nominally with different values.