Rockabillies in Tokyo

Japan has a well deserved reputation for eclectic fashions and subcultures. One of the places where this is most apparent is in Yoyogi Park in Harajuki, Tokyo.  Harajuku is the stomping grounds of many groups such as the Cosplayers, Lolitas, Goths, Goth Lolitas, and Takenoko-zoku, a.k.a. bamboo shoot kids, a.k.a. the Rockabillies.  Today, this last group will be the focus of this post, although rest assured, I will be going back to Tokyo soon to document the other, equally fascinating tribes.

The rockabillies are truly one of the most interesting subcultures that I have ever glimpsed or come across. Dressed like a bunch of extras from a Japanese production of “Grease”, they buck pretty much every norm of mainstream Japanese culture there is. Loud, proud, and completely unconventional, they are decked out in a 50`s style look of leather jackets and pants, dark denim, and massive hair held together by litres of hair gel.

They show up every weekend, usually Sundays at Harajuku park to hang out, drink beer, blast Elvis music and have what can only be described as a Grease Lightning meets breakdancing dance off.

According to my research on the internet, these guys, The takenoko-zoku, ie. The Rockabillies, are a subculture/style that sprung up sometime during the `70s and `80s. By the mid 90`s, for some reason, the local authorities decided that the Takeno-zoku were a menace to Japanese society and started to drive away the rock-n-rollers en masse. Perhaps they were becoming too rowdy?

In any case, in the vacuum that was caused by the near extinction of the Takeno-zoku, many other, equally eclectic but more timid groups such as the goths, lolitas, cosplayers, etc ad infinitum popped up to fill in the void.

However, every Sunday, the last remnants of the Takenoko-zoku, now endearingly referred to as the Rockabillies, and many in their middle age, congregate together on one of the corners of Yoyogi Park to participate in their ritualized traditions of drinking Asahi beer and dancing to 50`s classics.

On a related note, one thing I find fascinating about Japanese subcultures is the paradox that their respective members find themselves in.  As a collectivist society, Japanese culture is all about being part of a group. Naturally, the biggest group is society at large, which is why most people are not big on expressing their individuality and instead prefer to comform to the social norms. As is oft repeated, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. However, many people decide that they have no desire to be a part of mainstream Japanese subculture, and so in the hopes of expressing their own individuality, turn to one of the many subcultures of different prominence in Japan.

The irony ofcourse is that when substituting one group for another, Japanese people fully conform to the norms, standards, and social rules of their new, chosen subcultures. In searching for a new identity to call their own, they instead inadvertently become caricatures of their group.

It could be said that the same is true for subcultures anywhere around the world, and this is true, but it`s just my observation that in Japan particularly, those people that choose to be a part of subcultures outside of mainstream culture tend to conform even more strongly to the norms of their particular group of choice.

Anyways, these guys were quite interesting, and I was lucky to get a chance to film them since apparently, they sometimes don`t take too kindly to obnoxiously persistent amateur filmmakers like myself. I hope you enjoyed the video, dear readers.

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