America and Japan have given the world probably the most famous low car styles there are: lowriders in the States, bosozoku and shakotan in Japan. Low as they may be, these cars don’t have all that much in common. Just ask Shin Sato, who made his name in Japan building them all.
The umbrella term bosozoku seems to be the go-to term for any car that’s a bit rebel, with exhausts that stick out like a stubborn nail that refuses to be hammered down. But it has its own specific (and disappearing) history, something that could’ve been born only in a strict society like Japan’s. The societal expectations and restrictions here were the perfect conditions for a counterculture scene like the bosozoku to appear.
Taking the spirit of the modifications from their bikes, the birth of the bosozoku genre of cars was born. Commonly known as shakotan, or highway racers, these cars took inspiration from the domestic silhouette racing series at the time. It’s also where the trend for riveted bolt-on overfenders came from. To adhere to Japanese laws, tires must not stick out of the car’s bodywork, so for those wanting to add fatter tires, the solution was to simply extend the car’s bodywork with these types of overfenders. Over the years, different styles emerged as people’s creativity became wilder. It got to a point where there are different styles depending on the area of the country you’re in.
The Ebina City area in Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour south of Tokyo, is the home of New Jack, a car dealership turned customization shop started by Shin Sato more than 20 years ago. He was 30 years old then, just as the whole shakotan sheen was wearing. New Jack is known more for its lowrider customization, but Sato-san started out in the world of highway races. I met up with Sato-san a couple of months ago, before this pandemic brought the year to halt, to get an idea why he moved away from shakotans to lowriders and now more recently went back to shakotan.
When we met, he had just finished his modifications on Effspot’s Toyota Cresta before it was shipped out to Los Angeles. To send the car off he brought his own custom made Toyota Celica and asked his friend Souki to bring out the Nissan Leopard he helped make.
Sato-san started out with a part time job at a petrol station when he was 18, which allowed him to save up for his hobby. At this point he had a motorcycle, which he rode to would meet up with friends at night to “make noise.” He said he had wanted to stand out and pinpoints this as the origin for his love of being “different.” His history with shakotan goes back to when he was around 19 to 21 years old, after a brief stint with kei trucks. I like a man who appreciates a kei truck.
He had a couple of years playing with shakotan cars, but it wasn’t until he got a job at a lowrider shop that he came to know his love of being different could be turned into a business. There, Sato-san learned the tricks of the trade in customizing old American cars into lowriders. He liked being different from the crowd, and it turns out he liked making things be different from the crowd, too. People started catching on, and Sato-san’s shop, New Jack, became synonymous with lowriders in the area.
Naturally, with shakotan culture declining Sato-san saw an opportunity in customizing lowriders instead. This would’ve been in the mid-to-late 1990s in Japan, when American hip hop influence was at its peak. According to Sato-san, everyone wanted to move to “something more bling.” It’s as simple as that; it was a business decision. The connection between lowriders and shakotan isn’t obvious and even Sato-san admits there’s not much similarity in terms of style, except perhaps for the preference of smaller wheel sizes.
However, he does admit there are similarities in the people who like them. Sato-san says he believes both groups see the car as more than just a means of transportation: “People who like custom always want to do custom if it’s a car or a bike.”
Shakotan and bosozoku could be considered Japan’s automotive version of the lowrider culture, as a sort of counter subculture. Both take forgotten cars and dress them up in accordance with their group’s style.
He transitioned back to customizing shakotan cars again about 15 years ago, when demand for the style started to get traction again. He say he’s “first and foremost a car dealer” but since his peers were starting to make them again he thought, “Why not?” So he did it himself. Unsurprisingly, there’s no school or form of training to making these sorts of cars. He started doing it by eye and got “wisdom shared from his colleagues.”
According to Sato-san, shakotan culture goes back to grachan or Grand Championship races that took place in the 1970s to 1980s. Sato-san cites 1988 to 1990 as being the crucial years for the inspiration of his favorite type of style, the silhouette style. The famous Tomica livery R30 Silhouette car inspired him to create his signature look of shakotan, and it would become synonymous with the New Jack name.
Sato-san started customizing cars because he wanted to see what he could do with the cars he had. “You can do anything if you buy an expensive car, but how cool can you make a cheap car?”
The first full shakotan car he considers he made was based on one of the many Nissan 910 Bluebirds he had, inspired by the Autobacs livery Super Silhouette racing car. He doesn’t have the car now but a customer’s dad did make him a 1/24 scale model car of it.
Even though the shakotan scene isn’t as big as it used to be, people like Sato-san, Souki and their peers are still showing people in Japan and beyond the value of these cars. Social media and the internet has certainly helped their cause, but even then it’s not what it once was. The problem lies with the Japanese laws and regulations. Sato-san believes that the era and politics had a lot to do with the disappearance of the shakotan scene. He likened it to fashion where trends come and go, and people move on to the next big trend. In the 1990s in Japan, it just so happened to be lowriders.
Since 2004, the police have clamped down hard on these organized groups and gatherings. Most of the cars make noise while driving on the motorway but usually refrain from causing too much havoc at meeting areas, though some rotten apples spoil the fun for everyone. Japan’s strict auto laws also meant these sorts of cars were getting harder to register for road use, though I’ve been told they are starting to ease restrictions.
Sato-san reminds me that these cars are custom show cars first and foremost. Their gatherings in recent years have turned more into “festive events” rather than to prove a point by making loud noises. Every year all the local crews from region-specific shops gather at a designated parking area on the motorway to catch up with their friends and colleagues, but Sato-san admits some who show up to these gatherings come in “noisy and dirty” cars; he says he can understand why there are a lot of people in both the public, and even in their community, who dislike it and quit. He calls it an unfortunate situation.
As for the future of their culture, Sato-san believes it completely depends on the type of person who rides it: “If you cannot do it quietly when you stop at parking areas car gathering will be difficult.”
While I can’t imagine the shakotan scene ever being as big as it was in its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, like Sato-san I can sort of see it becoming a fashion trend in the future where people have these cars for aesthetics, in a similar way to lowriders. Funny that, fashion comes and goes, but style is forever.