Author experiences then details Japan's seamy, un-touristy side

October 17, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

"Choco Bon-Bon is five feet eight inches tall, weighs one hundred twenty-eight pounds, . . . " begins the fourth chapter of a just-published book about Japan. "He was born on May 4, 1967 -- or Showa 42 by the Japanese calendar."

Mr. Bon-Bon, explains author Karl Taro Greenfeld, is the most sought-after male lead in the Japanese adult film video industry -- an industry that rivals microchips, compact cars and sushi in some segments of Japanese society.

Another chapter in Mr. Greenfeld's book follows young Japanese women wearing plastic wrap dresses to Tokyo's discos, where males pay to ogle them. Another chapter discusses the Yakuza, crime families that run gambling and extortion rackets. Another with youth motorcycle gangs. Underground computer hackers. Young soldiers in ultra-nationalist right-wing political groups. Prostitutes.

Sound like the Japan you know?

Titled "Speed Tribes," the book is a collection of 10 case studies of certain strata within Japanese society that are largely ignored by -- or unknown to -- Western observers, explains Mr. Greenfeld over a beer in a Washington bar.

"I took these things the Japanese were already aware of, but nobody had gone into the depth that I did," says the 29-year-old author.

"Speed tribes" is the Anglo-transliteration for the Japanese word bosozoku, or motorcycle gangs. It's also the catch-all moniker Mr. Greenfeld uses to describe the 35 million Japanese between the ages of 15 and 30 -- the children of the industrialists, laborers and executives who built Japan Inc., the '80s image of Japan that still remains among many Westerners.

If the book doesn't completely dissipate the patina of Japan as a country of lock-step salarymen or kids who study 15 hours a day, it does present this other side of Japan -- a side that resembles the dankness of "Blade Runner" rather than a PBS special on why Japanese kids are so much better than American kids.

"He's got it right," says Scott Littleton of Mr. Greenfeld's book. Mr. Littleton, a professor of anthropology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, studies and writes extensively on Japan's youth culture. "We're used to seeing Japan as a buttoned-down, corporate society."

Mr. Greenfeld, however, hastens to warn that the book does not foreshadow the deterioration of Japan.

"Japan is not a decrepit, broken-down society by any means," he says. "Speed Tribes" "is about some interesting elements of that society. It's not as if the whole country has decided to sell drugs and ride motorcycles. But it does seem like a frenetic, apocalyptic Tokyo. That's the real idea behind this book: a non-fiction book about Japan that's not turgid or academic."

Mr. Greenfeld is tall, with crow black hair pulled into a ponytail. Born in Kobe, Japan, of an American-Jewish father and a Japanese mother, he was raised in California and attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York. After graduating, he floundered around New York City trying to free-lance magazine stories, which he says, doesn't pay bills. He landed in Tokyo in 1987 and began covering staid news for English-language newspapers.

"I was covering trade disputes, visiting dignitaries, microchip dumping, $20 cups of coffee," he says.

And then, the revelation.

He realized the Japan he was writing about was nary a reflection of the Japan he was living: the world of the Yakuza, underground computer hackers, foreign "hostesses," bosozoku. Mr. Greenfeld's Japan is an underclass of sorts, an underclass not always represented by wealth, or lack of it, but more of spirit or direction. It's a collection of ne'er-do-well youth, some quite pathetic and full of deep, if invisible, self-loathing. They've been sucked, pushed or drawn into more marginal circles of Japanese society, where corporatism and jobs are sometimes replaced by extortion, petty crime, porn or, worst of all, ennui.

"I was lucky enough to know people in this milieu anyway, because that was my social life," he says. "It was sort of a sordid life, the usual foreign correspondent's scene. It doesn't speak well of the company that I kept, but at the same time it was a lot more entertaining."

The pace of "Speed Tribes" is frenzied and detailed. Mr. Greenfeld spent two years researching it, then a year writing. His prose smacks of the Tom Wolfe/Gay Talese New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s.

"In a lot of cases I was actually there," he explains. "I hung around a lot of porno movies, I went along with some Yakuza collection trips. I went on a motorcycle gang run. They were my friends. I wouldn't have gotten very far if I would have just went up to them and said, 'Hi, I'm a foreign reporter, would you mind if I hang around while you negotiate a dope deal.' "

While researching in Tokyo, he sold parts of the book to U.S. magazines hungry for tales of a trans-Pacific accelerated society.

"The Japanese media covered them, but not in one sort of generation mosaic. It's like in America you talk about Generation but it wasn't across the political-socio-economic spectrum. That was a novel."

Resist the temptation, says Mr. Greenfeld, to make comparisons of Japan's next generation to this country's so-called Generation X of twentysomethings. A more fitting explanation is they've been reared in a culture of material well-being generated by Japan's economic boom, a materialism they take for granted -- and which may ruin them.

But apparently, it hasn't ruined all the stories. Mr. Greenfeld tries to track down his old friends. And Mr. Bon-Bon, he says, has not only moved away from doing porn movies, but has moved up to "exploitation ultra-violence films."

"He's become quite successful, actually," says Mr. Greenfeld. "It's not that tragic."

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