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Japan Reading: Speed Tribes
  Speed Tribes
by Karl Taro Greenfeld
HarperCollins Publishing
1995, 304 Pages

Greenfeld cracks open the heads of ordinary kids combatting boredom: skatepunks waiting to steal a scooter to sell for a new turntable, suburban girls running the elevators at the department store trying ecstacy for the first time, young gang leaders aspiring for the Yakuza.

Greenfeld has examined the late 90s moment in Japan through the occasionally glassy eyes of Japanese youths. It's a pretty grim scene - on one hand, these kids are to be celebrated for grasping hold of their crumbling environment and coaxing out some passion. It's a sort of urban sports approach, akin to watching baseball being overtaken by skateboarding as the world is paved. In a Japan where the Confucian system is sorely tested by economic decomposition, these kids are trying to make up a meaningful life. Rigorous testing, stifling marriage and suburban anomie are active enemies to be faught. Or goals put out of reach by severe social barriers.

While not an uplifting read, this book certainly comes quickly. I read it within about a day of picking it up. I read it walking through the streets of Tokyo, and I saw many of these kids in a new light.

The book is broken up into twelve chapters, roughly covering the youngest yakuza, aggressive motorbikers, motorcycle thieves, porn actors, partying suburban teenage girls, ivy league students, korean drug dealers, indie musicians, nationalists, hostesses, delinquents, and nerds. Each chapter is written as though the author were alongside whatever screwed up youth he's portraying; some very delicate situations are glimpsed from inside some very cramped quarters. As a journalist, I'm curious about his methods; if he gleaned all this from conversation, friendship or following. Either way, it makes for a feeling of authenticity and insight as you read. The book holds together, as the worlds intersect, bits of facts and figures and translations leak in, but mostly it's a serious of fictionalized (or dramatized) short portraits.

In a brief online interview with the Capitola Book Cafe, Greenfeld responds to a question:

BC: Which character is your favorite?

KTG: Daisuke, from the chapter Dai: The Motorcycle Thief. He was this really nice kid who stole motorcycles. He was really excited by life, naive, and endearing. He got a role as an extra in a movie and actually thought that he was going to be a big star. He still had hope in him, unlike all these other criminals, who had no optimism. I could empathize with him.

Greenfeld is right to aspire for optimism. Within Speed Tribes is a sort of disease. A profound loss of hope. By the end of their short time on his stage, nearly all of the characters have abandoned their footing, in romance or even in the criminal underground, as they contemplate the short-lived pleasures afforded by their particular sins.

I found this reflected as I gazed around Tokyo, wondering if all these kids were aimless predators, perhaps hopped on speed and looking to go out in a blaze of glory. Personally, after reading this, I'm working to see the hardworking culture-pioneering upside of these young outsiders. And I'm slightly eager to retreat to a more pastoral Japan.

Greenfeld himself seems to have cohabitated with some of these folks. In his writings for Salon on modern sin in Tokyo, and in a piece about speed addicts in Thailand for Time, he writes accounts of drug use intertwined with his subjects. In these articles he pauses the narrative to reflect on his own drug nadir; Speed Tribes the book has none of those moments. But there are many delicious details that give the story an air of immediacy, and ring true after some time in Tokyo. It's quite clear that Greenfeld spent some time in these unsettled worlds.

Speed Tribes links November 2001

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