5 May 2016

Why American cars used to cost fingers in Japan

Large U.S.-made sedans have always appealed to the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime gangs). Perhaps it is their rebellious nature or merely their over-sized style, but Chevrolet, Lincoln and particularly Cadillac have for many years signaled Yakuza to the general public – mostly in black, of course. Such was their notoriety, in some jurisdictions known for a high presence of organized crime, that police instructed the public to avoid large black American sedans and for public parking lots to prohibit them from parking.

A number of post-war Yakuza ceremonies were designed to flaunt society, instill fear (like lopping off members’ fingers as punishment or as a display of loyalty) and show off the gangs’ supposed strength. A few of these involved large processions of Yakuza in their Lincolns and Cadillacs, blocking streets and intersections as they slowly drove past like a funeral procession, or perhaps as a coming-out ceremony, for a boss recently released from prison.

Like the Yakuza, less notorious elements of Japanese society also developed a desire to stand out and drive something other than a Japanese car. So along with a taste for European cars, the Japanese also started buying and importing American classic cars too. The strong value of the Yen has over the years ensured a steady supply of Challengers, Corvettes, Mustangs and Chargers to the Japanese islands.

Their popularity here often surprises foreigners, who wonder why the Japanese, with small roads, tight corners, expensive fuel and a restrictive registration bureaucracy, would bother with large, fuel-inefficient, marginally-handling and generally unsuitable machines. The answer is of course the same as it is in the U.S.; they are cool, make great noises and capture lost youth, or perhaps the romance of the movies and North America’s open roads.

One owner, of the 1970 GTO Judge seen in the accompanying photographs, fell in love with the open road and amesha ("American car" in Japanese) after seeing the movie Two Lane Blacktop. Built with a Ram Air 455HO V-8, BF Goodrich rubber and Orbit Orange paint, it is one of only a handful of similarly configured GTOs built that year. The proof is listed on the build sheet that the owner proudly displays.

Fear not though, shows aren’t classic cars’ only domain in Japan; drivers here generally do not pamper or trailer their cars – they are regularly driven, driven hard and often raced. Because, even in the land of four-cylinder econoboxes, everyone still loves the sound of a wide-open, big V-8.

And we’ve got lots of them. From Bosses to Superbirds – they’re all familiar to Japanese car enthusiasts. Even cars like the DeTomaso Pantera and Iso Grifo, which are only powered by American V-8s, are also popular. Along with these classic American cars, all offshoots of American car culture are also represented: Hot rods, custom sleds, low-riders, trucks, boring four-doors, surfer vans, police cruisers and military surplus Hummers. Commercial van clubs and races (with special street cred for having the original plumber shop graphics from Michigan on your 1995 Dodge van) can be found too.

While the Yakuza’s influence on Japanese society has seen a steady decline over the past 10 or so years, and their preference for American cars has waned – with many now preferring Lexus or Benz – the general public in Japan still views American cars, especially the large and loud, as something a little anti-social and a touch rebellious. Even if you don’t need to chop off a few fingers to own or drive one nowadays…

Kuro Neko is a Japan-based photographer and a regular contributor to Japanese Nostalgic Car, and is a partner for the carsonfilm.tumblr.com blog

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