The automobile has, since its inception, been an icon of American culture and power to some degree. The mafia men of the 50’ drove enormous and luxuries vehicles that perpetuated there status and dominance. The 60’s and 70’s brought the era of the American muscle car and growth in racing. However, due to lack of safety measures in these cars, the 80’s sparked a change in automobile design and was a period of safety innovation. The emergence of speed, power, and racing arose once more during the 90’s thanks to new safety measures and advancing technology. It wasn’t until 2000 that popular culture may have fully embraced automobiles and racing among ultimately the youth. This “time line” if you will is very basic it doesn’t cover everything.
The topic at hand is street racing and how it has grown through the media in various forms of entertainment. Late in the 1990’s we began to see an emergence of interest in street racing specifically illegal racing among the youth. This trend was new and slowly growing here in the United States. In Japan however, illegal street racing was already part of a flourishing popular culture. Among other things, a animated series was actually developed called Initial D that revolved around an aspiring street racer. The show’s driving physics and technical knowledge of drifting and vehicles were even supervised by the legendary drift king Keiichi Tsuchiya. Auto stores in Japan are filled with ridiculous amounts of after market parts to increase a performance of an otherwise normal car. This culture of automobiles and racing flourishes in Japan not only by the embracement of the youth, but also by car companies that develop performance versions of their cars as well.
A look at Japan’s street racing culture reveals similarities and influences in the present racing culture here in the U.S. The most obvious of all these signs would be the launch of the movie, The Fast and The Furious. One can see the same obsession with tuning one’s car for higher performance and dominance in the street racing culture. The process of modifying a normal vehicle into a tuner actually derives a nickname for the car: tuner car or silencer car. Not surprisingly, most of these modified vehicles are actually from Japanese brands, such as, Subaru, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi and so forth on. The release of this movie launched other forms of popular culture to catch onto this trend. The video game industry released numerous spin off versions of street racing games that featured the ability to upgrade one’s car visually with body kits, decals and performance with nitrous and turbo. This is a niche to show that anyone could own a tuner car and bring out its optimal performance at anytime, thus simulating the street racing culture.
The street racing culture in Japan is called either the tuner scene or import scene. One can easily identify this image because upon going to a store or magazine stand we can spot out this image in one glance. The cover is more than likely a car that is heavily modified and sometimes a tuner model is present as well, with the headlines of more power, control, or reviews of tuner cars. It is perhaps evident then to say that the tuner/street racing scene is part of popular culture for the time being. Sequels of street racing movies and video games still continue to this day, there is even be a clothing and music that is also associated with the tuner culture.
However, one doesn’t see illegal street racing most if not all the time. It is possible that the idea or belief that one must upgrade one’s car to appear cool is far more important than actually having racing pedigree. I say that because one readily sees a young teenager or adult with a normal car with only the rims, paint job, or body modified to appear “street ready”. It has become a social norm to do so and it may also be expected of one to do so, thus it has become its own culture with its own standards and beliefs. However authentic and actual modified and high performance street cars do exist with internal components maxed out. The principal group that may influence this, at this point, is the youth culture. The media may have started this “tuner scene” by exploiting the original source by which it may have been a small sub-culture before hand. Most trends or fads are started this way as we’ve seen in the film Merchants of cool. So is this nothing more than a trend or will it become part of dominant culture? It is hard to say because trends and popular culture changes rapidly. If anything one can make a connection of the tuner scene back in Japan to the present scene here in the U.S. and perhaps other parts of the world in full circle.
I am in fact an avid fan of automobiles, driving, and racing in general. I can see the appeal of street racing because it is just another form of racing, though illegally of course. There is a difference however of street racing in Japan and street racing here in the U.S. Most street races are in fact done on mountain passes in Japan, while in the U.S. the idea of actually racing in the streets is dominant. It may have to do something with the geography, landscape, or even the culture of both countries. Yet what would we call this type of “popular” culture? It may not be defined as being left over of high culture and maybe it isn’t low culture either. All we may be able to say is that it is a foreign perhaps, and that it actually has a culture here in the U.S. and maybe across the world. It is the complicated social and ideological network of connections that make this possible. And it may just be a form of globalization into the 21ist century.