BOOKS: Teriyaki

3 minute read
Pico Iyer

UENO PARK, IN TOKYO, was ordained by the Meiji Emperor in the late 19th century as a public space in which Japanese could pay homage to ancient shrines and native traditions. Nowadays, it is a mess of illegal Iranian immigrants selling phony telephone cards and cocaine. The statue of Takamori Saigo, a Meiji-era samurai, is surrounded by junkies seeking out teriyaki (heroin) or shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine). Indeed, when Choco Bon- Bon, star of such Japanese porn classics as Tales of a Hard Banana, needs a fix, he goes shopping in Ueno and then goes home to the Hotel Queen DeGaulle to get high.

This scene is emblematic of the world portrayed in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Speed Tribes (HarperCollins; 286 pages; $23), a fast and strutting view of a neon-lit capital that might be called Notes from the Tokyo Underground. In place of the kimonoed ladies and the men in gray flannel suits who form so much of our sense of Japan, Greenfeld pulls back the curtain on a much more colorful and disaffected group — gangsters, good-time girls, gold-toothed bikers and punks. The economic boom of the ’80s, in which Japan’s assets grew 80% in just four years, produced, Greenfeld suggests, a new generation of cheap operators and rich hedonists. As young, hip and plugged-in as his subjects — he knows every Gaultier accessory and Ruger pistol — Greenfeld provides a racy, knowing portrait of the people who are usually cropped out of the country’s official portrait of itself.

Essentially, the author’s method is to mix the slangy, teen-dream prose of a suburban hell raiser with rock-solid numbers. He shows us kids who attended high school for only three days and schools that have never sent a single student to college. He explains how to hotwire a Suzuki 750 motorbike and how to sell fake acid on the streets. Yet all these fancy maneuvers are underscored by some sobering statistics. The average Japanese watches nearly an hour more of television a day than an American. Approximately 14,000 adult videos are made every year in Japan (in the U.S. the figure is 2,500). And between 1985 and 1990, cocaine seizures in the country went up from 129 grams a year to 68.8 kilos. What gives Speed Tribes its piquancy is the way these very modern problems play off against the vestiges of tradition. Motorcycle gangs, for example, bow to one another at a rumble. A mobster visits his godfather on Respect for the Aged Day.

Greenfeld’s gold-chain demimonde no more represents all of Japan than Bret Easton Ellis’ world of tan, designer-drug nihilists represents America. Like Ellis, Greenfeld sometimes comes close to succumbing to the brand-name hypnosis he wishes to satirize. Moreover, he never really explores the meaning of the rebellions he describes. Instead, he gives us a kind of up-to-the- minute CD: a collection of snappy, driving vignettes that show how the cutting edge draws blood.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at