The anime series Initial D is an important cultural touchstone in Japan. It portrays a very real cultural phenomenon that has been imitated and copied countless times outside of Japan, but its realities and the factors that brought it about were often overlooked.
Japanese battle racing was, in many ways, born out of honour and boredom. It reflects Japan’s obsession with exceptionalism, as well as providing an outlet for young men who had time on their hands. But before we get into the factors that brought it about, we need to talk about the most famous type of Japanese battle racing, and the one explored in Initial D: the Tōge.
King of the Mountain
Tōge is the name for battle racing in Japan that involves a mountain pass. The practice started with local drivers who lived around these mountain passes, wanting to test their cars against each other. Its origins are as simple as asking the question “Who can get down the mountain faster?” — and then maybe “Who can get up the mountain faster?”
There are three main types of Tōge race, all of which appear in some form in Initial D:
Cat and Mouse: Cars start bumper-to-bumper. If the lead car gets a good amount ahead, they win. If either spins out or crashes, the other car wins. If the two cars stay close by, the race is re-run with positions swapped. This is the kind of race we see almost exclusively in the later season of Initial D.
Grip Gambler: Typically takes place on roads wide enough for two cars to travel on. Cars start side by side; whoever is the leader by the end of the road, wins. This type of race is used on the early Tōge races on the Akina Downhill, the home course of Takumi Fujiwara and the Akina Speed Stars.
Time Attack: Racers head down the course one at a time to race for the best time. This type of race is mentioned on a few occasions, but this type of race usually takes place off-screen in the TV series.
The first two type of Tōge can be run spontaneously. Random Tōge battles are initiated by using your hazard flashers to signal you wish to battle. All types of Japanese street racing are sometimes mislabelled Tōge, but the word refers specifically to the mountain-pass race.
Tōge is also often mixed up with drift racing. Whilst many Tōge races did utilize it, “drifting” came out of the type of roads and courses people raced on — the winding mountain pass with many challenging corners. Often, a drift was a necessity in getting around a bend, or robbing your opponent of room to overtake on the tight roads. The modern idea of “competitive drifting” is really a variation on a necessary skill to racing a challenging road with a production car, and has little to do with real Tōge.
Tōge captured the imagination of the Japanese racer because of the difficulty the mountain pass presented, as well as that the roads they took place on were out of the way enough to have light traffic at the times of day that races would be held. They are a real racing enthusiast’s course; a tangle of hills and corners that allows groups of racers to test their mettle against each other.
The Racing Tribes
A big part of Initial D is the competing racing gangs, who fought to be the fastest on their home course — or on another gang’s territory, to claim “ownership” of it. The competition between them is the heart of all the conflicts and races in Initial D, and these gang rivalries and identities were the gasoline that fuelled the real life battle racing phenomenon.
The very real inspiration for many of these gangs was the legendary Mid Night Club, formed in 1987, and whose name and street racing ethos were used for the series of racing games by Rockstar San Diego.
The reality was that the club had strict rules for membership. Foremost, the car and driver must be capable of 250 km/h, though over 300 km/h was not uncommon; this was mostly to allow members to outrun police, who had a top speed limit due to 1977 Japanese legislation. You were an apprentice for a year, in which you had to attend all race meetings. If you were judged a danger to other members or other motorists, you were removed from the club. A fully-fledged member of the gang’s car was reportedly capable of 320 km/h Average Top Speed.
As with fictional groups like the Akina Speed Stars, membership was denoted by a white sticker on the car featuring the Mid Night Club’s spiral logo. While not Tōge racers, the Mid Night Club were highway racers, and led to the formation of a lot of other racing gangs all across the world. The mixing of fiction and fact has led to the Mid Night Club being mythologized, with that mythology and image becoming an inspiration for the American street racing culture of the 2000s.
The other unfortunate reality is that the Mid Night Club was disbanded in 1999, due to a traffic accident that killed two rival racing gang members and injured 8, including 6 regular motorists.
The Right Place, The Right Time
By the time the Mid Night Club had disbanded, Japan had also changed in ways that made street-racing increasingly difficult. Battle racing really is a product of the late 1980s and 1990s, with a perfect storm of factors.
People had cars that were relatively inexpensive, powerful and manoeuvrable due to Japan’s large domestic automotive industry. This led to these “domestic sports cars” being in the reach of many young people in their late teens and early 20s, giving rise to the culture of battle racing. It’s akin to how skateboarding culture erupted in the late 70s; it’s a combination of a man-made playground and a bunch of bored kids.
Domestically produced cars, as well as being so much cheaper and better suited to the roads, were also a point of Japanese pride. By the late 80s and early 90s, Japan had built itself up into a manufacturing and technological power known for its quality. Japanese products had made a big cultural impact on the Western world, and this extended to Japanese car manufacturers.
The 90s was the era Japan really separated its design philosophy and technology from that of the USA and Europe; their focus was on lightness, performance, and handling. Whereas US made cars were still made for comfort or straight line speed, cars like the Nissan Skyline, the Toyota MR2 and the famous Toyota Sprinter Trueno, part of the AE86 family referred to so much in the show. The mountain-pass downhill is to Japanese battle racing what the quarter-mile drag race is to muscle cars.
Battle racing can be seen as being as influential as skateboarding was to the alternative culture of the USA in the 90s. Street racing had existed before in Japan, but it had never been so widespread before, or been codified into a culture.
It also helped that the street racers were far ahead of the police in terms of speed and handling, a fact Japanese traffic enforcement would begin to rectify by the late 1990s. The dangerous reality of the practice, as demonstrated by the Mid Night Club incident, coupled with an increased focus on enforcement, was the real final nail in the coffin for Japanese Battle Racing, and by extension, Tōge.
Initial D: The Legend of the Eight Six
Why did the Initial D manga and anime put the Toyota AE86 generation centre-stage? Well, the car has a special place in the hearts of Japanese car enthusiasts as an excellent car of its time; it was one of the first to embody this new spirit of affordable performance. In many ways, Initial D’s AE86 is the embodiment of Japanese Battle Racing’s spirit — its performance is based on tuning and lightness, rather than raw power. It’s very much a modder’s car, and its lack of an Anti-lock Braking System puts emphasis on the skill of the driver. It’s the idea that the superior driver, not the superior car, matters in a difficult mountain race.
The reality of most battle racing of that era was of kids using their cars or their parent’s cars for ad-hoc races. The reality of that era fits the spirit of Initial D more than you would first expect for an anime series that is often reduced to a series of memes, or distilled into its more repetitive tropes. Under the hood is a real story of economics, engineering, loose enforcement, and social change that created a unique moment in time; a moment we see endlessly returned to in video games and lesser imitators like the embarrassing Tokyo Drift. But its most faithful adaptation to fiction still, rather surprisingly, remains Initial D.
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