The New York Tuner Spreading the Gospel of Japan's Wild 'Bosozoku' Car Culture

''Violent running gang" car culture isn't often seen outside of Japan. John Roman wants to fix that.

We all know how the story goes. A father shares his passion for cars with his offspring, passing down his mechanical skills and educating them on how to be a part of the culture at large. Then he grows up and incorporates what he’s learned into the cars he builds, maybe passes it on to his own kids someday. And so the cycle repeats itself.

John Roman had the same trajectory. At least, at first. Then it morphed into something completely different.

Roman grew up in various boroughs of New York, learning cars from his dad. He also fell into a variety of different passions besides cars like art, photography, and punk and hardcore music. Still, something was missing, he told The Drive on a video shoot earlier this year. (In the interest of full disclosure, I've been working with Roman on some video projects on the side as well.)

“Being into cars, as people understood cars [and] as I understood cars growing up...there was a lot of status tied to that and a lot of vanity," he said. "Things that you wouldn’t necessarily think were in step with being a punk.”

Even after curating and building an extremely clean "bugeye" Subaru Impreza WRX that garnered much praise on the North American Subaru Impreza Owners Club forums, John still felt like a “closeted” car guy—an enthusiast, but an owner of a vehicle that didn’t quite speak his truth. But a favorite band, a documentary, and a love for photography would change all of that, assisting him in discovering a subculture within car culture at large that unified all his passions into one.

Eventually he found his version of punk car culture. It just had to come from a different country. It was called Bosozoku. Around for decades in Japan, Bosozoku means "violent running gang" and its hooligan-style cars (and bikes, which is where it started) feature huge wings, lowered bodies, wide fender flares and towering exhaust pipes.

John Roman

“You take all these different elements of things that I was inspired by... it was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the sum of all things. This is what I’m supposed to be involved in," he said. "This is what I’m supposed to be paying attention to.'"

The philosophies and principles of Bosozoku culture spoke to everything that Roman was and continues to be about: a strong connection to anti-establishment. A DIY ethos and the resulting fervor for avoiding cookie-cutter approaches to builds and off-the-shelf parts used for such builds. A desire and sense of responsibility to preserve the primary source material that documents the Bosozoku culture and educates those about Japanese tuning.

The/DRIVE (still from video)

At last, Roman finally felt like he “fit in.” This connection with an automotive subculture struck such a chord that it essentially became a religion for him. He made “commandments” like “Thou shall study and preserve the ephemera and scriptures of The Bosozoku.” And although this higher power didn’t command him to purchase a 1976 Datsun 280Z or modify it, Roman had an awakening of sorts and sold the Subaru to do just that.

“The 280Z was just the perfect blend of Japanese history that was in true dialogue with the hot-rodding tradition that my dad put me onto when I was younger," Roman said. "It was the lateral move into a completely other realm of tuning.”

Jared Auslander

Rather than build his Z like famous YouTubers, Roman followed the “Primary Source Commandment” of acquiring and preserving the scriptures of Japanese tuning and using them to build his 280Z in homage to one you might see on the streets of Japan in the 1980s.

This meant painstaking searches for performance parts on Japanese auction sites at odd hours and referencing styles from classic Japanese tuning magazines like Carboy, Young Auto, and Teens Road that he’s been collecting for years. Bosozoku isn't just about cars to Roman. It's about the entire culture, the look, the books, the ephemera. 

“I think what’s exciting about this period of time is that we can visit a point in time that we never knew about," he said. "And if we really wanna understand where we’re at with tuning culture today, we can study what was there before we ever knew about it.”

Roman’s Z is still very much a work in progress. So are his efforts to evangelize for Bosozoku culture in America. Maybe if he's successful, you'll see more slammed, widebody Datsuns rolling around with massive exhaust pipes. We could use more delightful things right now. 

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