There’s no shortage of subcultures in Japan, and they often seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive. One subculture that refuses to die is Japanese hot rodding, and that’s largely thanks to an unassuming man called Shige Suganuma. In 1983 Suganuma started Mooneyes Japan as a side business in Yokohama while working for Disney. His decision to give up the day job and take Mooneyes full time has helped the custom scene in Japan to flourish.
The name Mooneyes pays homage to the legendary American hot rodder Dean Moon and his MOON Speed Equipment company. After Moon’s death in 1987 and the later passing of his widow, MOON Speed Equipment was resurrected in the United States as Mooneyes USA, in Santa Fe Springs, California, home of MOON Speed Equipment since the 1960s.
Mooneyes provides a focus point for many custom motoring events and cruises in Japan, for both cars and custom motorcycles. Two annual events feature large on the custom calendar: the Street Car Nationals, which takes place every spring in Odaiba, Tokyo, and the Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show, which takes place every winter. Both events have a long history: 2013 marked the 27th year for the Nationals, and the 22nd year for the Hot Rod Custom Show.
December 1st 2013 saw the Mooneyes 22nd Annual Hot Rod Custom Show take place at Pacifico in Yokohama. The Starlite Rod & Kustom company came over from Torrance, California, to display two 1960 specials: a Ford Starliner called Agent Orange and an Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 called Electric Lemonade. These cars are owned by two of the main players at Starlite, Vice President Jack Fields and fabricator and suspension expert Erik.
Also making an appearance from the States was Bobby Green with his Old Crow bellytank salt flat racer, which holds several land speed records, and runs a 1932 Ford Model B 4-cylinder base.
On show were a variety of rat rods from around Japan – don’t let the patina of age fool you, these rods are as meticulous in detail as anything candy-coloured – and in another part of the hall looking low and cool was a 1949 Mercury courtesy of the Tokyo Downtown Kids Car Club.
Bikes featured prominently as usual, with show winners being shipped from the USA especially for this event. There were lots of Harleys, of course, such as Scott “T-Bone” Jones’s Noise Cycles 1952 panhead, backyard builder Joey Cano’s 1947 Knarrow Knuckle knucklehead chopper, and Caleb Owens’s Cro Customs 1976-78 Shovelhead CX, called “Yang Yang”.
Outside the show, an impromptu parade was taking place as riders arrived en masse and headed down the service lane to the parking area. This really was proof that custom building is alive and well in Japan, and there were hardtail choppers, trackers and bobbers of all descriptions alongside immaculately restored classic Japanese machines and modern rides.
If the jargon of custom building is difficult for you to fathom, don’t worry. In truth, it’s pretty easy to pick up, and a good read of any custom magazine will soon have you familiar with the most popular creations on the scene. Moon Illustrated is a bilingual magazine, and the Mooneyes website comes in both English and Japanese versions.
Even if you’re not a die-hard rodder or biker there’s still a lot for you to enjoy. The attention to detail and perfectionism that the Japanese are famous for is apparent in this long-lived passion called custom building. And the people who attend these shows look pretty cool too. The Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show, like the Nationals, is a big annual event. If you can’t wait until the next one comes around check out the Mooneyes website for the latest news and try to catch an event near you soon.
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My business is communication. I'm lucky enough to do a job I love - teaching English at a leading Japanese university, and at global companies such as Olympus, Panasonic and Hitachi. I love motorcycles, and have written for a motorcycle magazine in England. I've also ridden my motorcycle across eight countries in Europe. I used to race, and have crashed at every circuit I've been to - but walked away to tell tall tales in bars across the world! I have a vague plan to head back to the Himalayas and ride up to Ladakh on an Enfield Bullet. I've been in Japan now for 12 years, which is quite funny since I only planned to come for one. Life's a journey, so saddle up and ride.