Are There Really Gangs In Japanese Schools?

by Justin Sevakis,

Kevin asked:

Are gangs really prevalent among high schoolers (off the top of my head, gangs chasing Yusuke in YuYu, Baki, Shinici in Parasyte)?

They do exist! They're not THAT prevalent, but they are definitely a prominent part of Japanese society. Every society has its outcast, disaffected youth, right?

There are a few different flavors of Japanese high school thug, known collectively as "yankii" (a word that probably came from the American "yankee" but has nothing to do with its meaning). Yankii are high school aged delinquents, who enjoy things like glue-sniffing, smoking, and being into really trendy, over-the-top fashion (which changes all the time, but the "punch perm" is the classic hairstyle). They can often be seen loitering in trashier areas, squatting (their trademark squat is literally called the "shit squat", or unko suwari), looking bored and possibly starting fights.

In decades past, the most prominent yankii type was the Bosozoku (literally "running out of control tribe"), which were boys who congregated around tricked out motorcycles. They'd often ride suburban streets in large numbers very slowly, terrorizing neighborhoods and making a lot of noise. (As if the roaring engines weren't enough, they would often add musical horns). They'd wave imperial Japanese flags (they tend to be nationalistic), start fights, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. In the 80s and 90s they'd often go on "masked rides", where a large number would cruise highways, essentially grinding traffic to a halt. If anyone was disrespectful towards their ride, the gang would attack their car... or them.

Today yankii come in male and female forms, but years ago yankii and bosozoku were exclusively guys. In the 1970s the girls also revolted, and suddenly there was a comparable female subculture known as sukeban. Like the male yankii, they would trick out their high school uniforms with slogans, get into street brawls with rival gangs, engage in petty theft, stickin' it to the man. Social historians like to point out that this was generally a time of women's liberation in Japan, and in the West, and the sukeban trend went right along with that.

While yankii culture has changed over the years (mostly in appearance), the broad strokes are consistent over nearly every post-war generation. Much like youth gangs in other countries, most Japanese gang members are of lower class backgrounds, and rebel out of dissatisfaction for their lot in life. Many drop out of school young, get married and have babies quickly. While they're not part of the yakuza, they imitate the culture, following a similar strict social hierarchy and rules of conduct; nowhere is the senpai/kohai relationship more extreme than in these groups. Their worship of yakuza style means that yakuza groups would often recruit new members from their ranks. But much like youth gangs everywhere, the groups themselves tend to be extremely close-knit, and often turn into lifelong friendships. Very few stay delinquent past Japan's legal age of 20, but some of them never drop the look or the swagger.

Bosozoku are a dying breed. There were as many as 42,500 bosozoku in 1982 -- thought to be the activity's peak -- but it was already a fading tradition by the time new laws were passed that allowed the police to crack down harder on them in 2004. Today they are practically an endangered species, numbering less than a couple of hundred. This is why you typically only see them in older anime and manga. Sukeban aren't really a separate thing anymore. But there are still plenty of yankii around Japan if you know where to look.

Bosozoku made for great manga and anime storytelling, and figure prominently in everything from Akira to GTO to Durarara!! Subekan were also popular, featuring in everything from regular action manga like Sukeban Deka to exploitation movies. It's hard to tell just how many and how prevalent they are -- and the numbers constantly change with each generation. But they're a regular part of Japanese society and I expect them to keep showing up in anime and manga for decades to come.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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