Wednesday, January 30, 2013


The first motorcycle to appear in Japan; a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, in 1896 (Iwatate)
To understand the slow and chaotic beginning of the Japanese motorcycle industry, it helps to understand a little of the country's background, and history of its relations with the West.  Japan was never isolated or ignorant of world affairs, having conducted sea trade for centuries with neighbors in China and Korea, and was well aware in the 1500s that an aggressive colonial expansion by European countries had begun in the New World.  When Spanish and Portugese traders arrived on Japanese shores in the late 1500s, the introduction of Catholicism in southern Japan was seen as the spearhead of a possible colonizing effort by Europeans.  In response, the Tokugawa shogunate (the feudal military rulers in Edo castle - this is also called the 'Edo period') passed laws starting in 1633 which drastically restricted contact and trade with the outside world, making entry into Japan by foreigners, and exit from Japan by locals, punishable by death.  These laws remained in effect until 1868 (230 years!), the end of the Edo period, and the start of the 'Meiji Restoration'.  As with all politics, while the colonial threat was the primary excuse for an iron grip on Japanese trade, an important effect was to enrich the Tokugawas and deprive rival feudal groups of trade revenue.  Ultimately this unified Japan, and created a national identity.
A contemporary Japanese woodcut depicting one of Commodore Perry's steamships ('Net)
Japan still traded with the outside world, through tightly controlled channels: the sole European access was limited to the artificial island called Dejima, in Nagasaki harbor, where the Dutch East India Company handled imports and exports.  All trade with China went through Dejima as well.  Trade with Korea, the Ainu people of northern Japan, and the islands of the Ryukyu kingdom (Okinawa etc) were all handled at specific sites.  Europeans tried for 200 years to establish relations with Japan by trickery or force, but were successfully repelled until July 8, 1853, when Commodore Mathew Perry brought four US Navy warships (the kurofune, or 'Black Ships') into Tokyo Bay, and broke the resistance of Japanese forces.  He returned the following year with 7 warships, and forced the Shogun to sign 'Treaty of Peace and Amity'...classic 'gunboat diplomacy'; the treaty forbade the Japanese from levying tarrifs on trade (although of course the US could), and gave US citizens immunity from prosecution in Japan ('extraterritoriality' - same as in Iraq/Afghanistan today - some things never change).  Such treaties were implemented soon after by European countries, a humiliating turn of events which led to the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, which was replaced by the Meiji oligarchy in 1868 [which corresponds to the invention of the motorcycle, in France (the Perraux steam cycle) and the US (the Roper steam velocipede)].
The first railroad opened in Japan in 1872, between Yokohama and Tokyo (Shimbashi) ('Net)
The sudden/forced opening to European influence was embraced by the Meiji government, who saw modernization as the only way to defend Japanese sovereignty and culture.  They organized 'learning expeditions' to the US and Europe from the 1870s onwards, where large teams of diplomats and students examined all manner of manufacturing and governmental institutions (military, courts, schools, etc).  These missions served Japan well, for within a generation the country had become acknowledged as a modern global power, with a burgeoning industrial base.
The 1901 Thomas Auto-Bi Roadster, the first motorcycle raced in Japan.
The first motorcycle appeared in Japan in 1896; a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller imported by Shinsuke Jomonji, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives, who demonstrated the machine in front of the Hibiya Hotel in Tokyo (destroyed by earthquake in 1923?).  In 1901, a Thomas motorcycle and tricycle were imported, and the motorcycle was ridden extensively through Tokyo, and generated considerable press comment.  The first motor vehicle race in Japan was staged between the two Thomas machines and a Gladiator quadricycle, on Nov. 3, 1901. The Thomas is generally considered the first production motorcycle in the US, and its appearance in Japan at this early date is remarkable.
The Thomas Auto-Bi Roadster, Gladiator quadricycle, and Thomas Auto-Tri 3-wheeler, at the first motor vehicle race in Japan, Nov 3 1901
1908 - The First Japanese Motorcycle:
The true pioneer Japanese motorcycle builder was Narazo Shimazu, who established the Shimazu Motor Research Institute in 1908, in Osaka.  Using knowledge gleaned from Scientific American and the English book 'Motor Cycling Manual', he built his first gasoline-powered engine in August 1908, a two-stroke single-cylinder of 400cc, and installed it into a home-built frame from salvaged bicycles (there being no raw tubing available) - the first entirely Japanese-built motorcycle.
The first Japanese motorcycle; the NS, built by Narazo Shimazu in 1908, in Osaka (Iwatate)

He demonstrated the machine locally, then embarked on a second engine; a four-stroke, built in 1909, a 397cc single-cylinder with an 'atmospheric' inlet valve (relying solely on piston suction to open) and 76x87.5mm bore/stroke, which he installed in another home-built chassis, and named the 'NS'. The complex design of a four-stroke engine was daunting, and Shimazu built it from scratch at a time when very few such engines could be found in Japan; there was no guidance but foreign magazines and books.  "[I was] so absorbed in the work that I neither smoked nor drank while researching it, and I made the frame myself."  The machine worked, and he celebrated by buying a baked sweet potato!  A further 20 examples were built, under the name NMC (Nihon Motor Company), which were sold at the astronomical price of 250yen - around 20 years' salary for the average worker!  The Japanese motorcycle industry was born.
The Miyata-built 'Asahi' of 1913; virtually a replica of a Triumph (Iwatate)
In 1913, Eisuke Miyata, founder of a gun and bicycle firm (in 1892 - 'Miyata' is still making bicycles today), purchased a Triumph and made a faithful copy as the 'Asahi' motorcycle, which was used by the Tokyo police and for gov't minister escort duty, despite its 180yen price.  The Japanese motorcycle industry had truly begun, although there was as yet no unified highway code in Japan, and inter-urban roads were terrible.  Urban roads were worse, as Japanese cities were intentionally built in a crazy-quilt pattern during their Feudal period, to slow the advance of invading troops.  A lack of road signs and even street names, combined with the horrific state of road repair, made the advance of motorization difficult.  Japan had never relied on horse and carts for general movement of goods in their Feudal period, and almost all traffic was by foot.
Escorting Prince Hirohito with a ca.1926 Harley Davidson 'J' with sidecar...but the Prince had his own Indian! ('Net)
Narazo Shimazu returned to the motorcycle business in 1926, producing the 'Arrow First', a 250cc sidevalve single-cylinder, and after 6 were built, he embarked on a well-publicized across-Japan moto-tour, sponsored by Japan Oil, Dunlop, and Bosch.  Six riders, on four red motorcycles, took a 15-day ride of 1430 miles from Kagoshima to Tokyo.  The publicity drew the attention of the Ohayashi group of companies, which whom Shimazu founded Japan Motors Manufacturing.  He improved the 'Arrow First', and eventually sold 700 over the next 3 years, before the business went bust.
March 1926; winners of the Shizuoka Championship.  K.Nose (BSA Super Sports), Matsumoto (H-D single-cylinder), and Kawabata (New Imperial) (Iwatate)
The first motorcycle race in Japan was held in 1913, at the Hanshin Racecourse, a dirt horse racing track in Nishinomiya (near Kobe).  Around 30,000 spectators attended, a record for any kind of race in Japan.  Racing became more common at venues across the country, and professional riders emerged, such as Kawamada Kazuo (who worked for Alfred Child at Harley Davidson Japan - see below) and the remarkable Kenzo Tada, the first Japanese rider to compete at the Isle of Man TT, in 1930, aboard a Velocette KTT.  [Read more on Kenzo Tada here]
Kenzo Tada and his Velocette KTT on the Isle of Man in 1930 (Clew)
Just like the United States after WW2, it was the need for military mobility which sped up infrastructure improvement for Japanese roads.  An increasingly belligerent Japanese military (annexing Taiwan in 1895, and parts of China and Korea by 1910) used motorized vehicles in greater numbers than the rest of the country.  By 1919,  a unified highway code was established along British lines (meaning they drive on the left), and civilian contractors hired to improve roads and bridges, while the military was allowed to subsidize vehicle manufacture at home.
An advertisement for Belgian Saroléa motorcycles, ca.1926 (Iwatate)
During the 1920s, Japanese textiles were driving their export market, and increased prosperity meant more imports of motorcycles.  Harley Davidson's #2 global export market in the 1920s was Japan (after Australia), and Indian sold just as many (around 1000/year), including to Prince (later Emperor) Hirohito, who enjoyed riding an Indian Chief with sidecar.  Henderson four-cylinders were also sold in Japan, and manufacturers from Britain (AJS, Matchless, Norton, Douglas, Brough Superior, and Velocette), Belgium (Saroléa and FN), plus Husqvarna, Moto Guzzi, NSU and BMW exported to Japan as well.  The Road Improvement Plan of 1920 estimated a 30-year project of completely paving Japanese roads, and building bridges over rivers, and the motorcycle as a pleasurable touring machine for wealthy riders became a reality.  Motorcycle clubs sprung up, some of which forbade riders to venture alone due to the terrible state of roads, and a culture of tonori ('riding far') grew.
An Indian Chief and BSA 'Sloper', ca.1934 (Iwatate)
A massive earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo in 1923, killing hundreds of thousands, and the utter lack of motorized emergency vehicles, plus the impossibility of the road system for efficient rescue/reconstruction work, meant big changes for the Japanese vehicle industry, and the roads they used.  Tokyo was rebuilt with a more rational road system, which doubled the number of vehicles in a single year (1924), and led to a push country-wide for a modernized road system.  To further promote the nascent Japanese vehicle industry, import tariffs were imposed on foreign vehicles in 1925, which led Ford (1924), General Motors ('27), and Chrysler ('29) to establish factories in Japan.  Harley-Davidson followed suit in 1929.
A sporting Meguro 500cc OHV model of the late 1930s (taken postwar with a US Marine) ('Net)
Several small motorcycle manufacturers set up shop in the mid-1920s, including the 350cc two-stroke Sanda ('Thunder') from Osaka, the SSD of Hiroshima, and the grand-daddy of them all, a 1200cc twin called the Giant, built by Count Katsu Kiyoshi in 1924.  The Japan Automobile Company (JAC) produced motorcycles starting in 1929, which included 350cc and 500cc sidevalve singles, and a 500cc v-twin on JAP lines.  In 1931 JAC built about 30 examples of 1200cc flat-twin, used for Imperial escort duty.  Between the late 1920s and 1937, when the military effectively commanded all civilian vehicle production, quite a few large manufacturers had firmly established themselves in the Japanese market. Maruyama, Toyo (Mazda), Meguro, Cabton, Showa, Miyata, and Rikuo.  Miyata alone produced nearly 30,000 motorcycles between 1930-45, and as mentioned, Rikuo built some 18,000 heavyweight H-D clones between 1935-42.
Lady racer (?) on a Sarolea.  Note 'Gargoyle' sweater - they imported Mobil oil products (Iwatate)

The Harley Davidson / Rikuo Story:
Harley Davidsons began trickling into Japan in 1912, when the Japanese Army purchased a few machines, but never any spares! In 1922, Tokyo import company Nippon Jidoshe KK, headed by Baron Okura (which had been importing American cars since 1919) ordered a few 'J' model Harleys, and a few dozen more in the following two years, but never purchased spares with his bike orders, which confounded the H-D brass.  This, plus a large order from Outer Mongolia, also without a spares supplement, spurred H-D to send Alfred Rich Child to sort out the Japanese situation in 1924.  Negotiations with Baron Okura (the semi-official importer) to set up a proper H-D import scheme were a failure, but while in Japan, Child befriended Genjiro Fukui, US-educated and a wealthy founder of the prestigious new Sankyo Pharmaceutical Company.  Fukui ran an import/export division of Sankyo, the Koto Trading Co., which had been selling 'bootleg' import Harleys, brought into Japan from the Outer Mongolian despatches, and sold under Baron Okura's nose.
Alfred Rich Child and his family in Milwaukee, before heading off to Japan in 1924 (Sucher)
Since no love was lost between Child and Okura by this point, and a friendship blossomed between Child and Fukui, and since Fukui had already set up a Harley import and sales organization, it seemed natural that Alfred Child join forces with Fukui.  They set up the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Sales Company of Japan in 1924, with Fukui/Sankyo providing investment capital, and Child as Managing Director, whose 'cut' was 5% of gross sales in Japan. Their initial order included 350 H-Ds, each with a sidecar (three-wheelers having been found extremely useful as utility vehicles in Japan, post 'quake), plus $20,000 in spares, and $3000 of factory repair tools.  As Sankyo already had pharmaceutical contracts with all branches of the Japanese military, Harleys were suddenly required  for all manner of police, military, and Imperial Escort duties.  The new venture was very successful, selling about 2000 bikes/year.
A Harley Davidson special, made-for-Japan-only road racer, with 500cc OHV engine (Sucher)
In common with the American parent factory, H-D Japan hired professional motorcycle racer Kawamada Kazuo (who later became president of Orient Motors), after Alfred Child watched him win a 350cc race at Naruo in 1925, coming 4th in the 1200cc race on his Harley.  "An American came up an hit me on the shoulder. 'Would you like to come and work at the halrey-Davidson sales office?' he asked.  I jokingly replied, 'Will you pay me Y100 a month?' but I left for their Tokyo office for a visit anyway.  At that time the monthly salary at a private university was Y28...Alfred Chld said, 'Depending on your results, we'll pay you Y100 a month,' so I joined the company.  A week later I won first prize at Shinshu Matsumoto City Race, riding a 1200cc Harley Davidson, and they did indeed pay me Y100..."
After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, three-wheeled vehicles were the best way to get around Japan's difficult roads and cities, and many manufacturers built special chassis for all manner of passenger and utility machines.  This is a ca.1934 Harley Davidson VL 'rear car'  (Sucher)
After the economic crash of 1929, the Yen was devalued by half; this combined with new import tariffs made importing any foreign-built vehicle nearly impossible. With the price of Harley Davidsons suddenly more than doubled, Child reasoned the only future for Harley in Japan was to license the outright manufacture of H-Ds to a Japanese company - his company.  He sailed in 1929 to Milwaukee, with a representative of the Sankyo Co., and with an undisclosed cash payment from Sankyo, managed to convince a stunned H-D management to grant exclusive H-D bikes and spares manufacturing rights in Japan to the HDMSCoJ...of course, the reputed $75,000 payment from Sankyo to secure the deal, in the worst year of the Depression, didn't hurt a bit.  In return for these rights, Childs promised never to sell Japanese-built Harleys or spares outside Japan [The same situation is established by H-D in India at this very moment].  Childs brought motorcycle industry veteran and H-D employee Fred Barr with him to Japan, to set up a new factory in Shinagawa (Tokyo), using H-D tooling, processes, and blueprints to build parts and machines to exact specifications.  No other Americans were sent, none were ever employed. Production began in 1932.  No mention was made of this unique agreement in the press in the USA, nor was it publicly discussed by Harley Davidson, until the 1980s.
The Harley Davidson 'Rikuo', a 1200cc VL (Iwatate)
The first models were built by 1935, the 1200cc Model 'VL', and were branded the Harley Davidson 'Rikuo' (Road King) model.  Their #1 customer was the Japanese military, who were rapidly expanding their arsenal.  Complications emerged the next year, 1936, when H-D sent a prototype 'Knucklehead' OHV machine for testing in Japan, and pressured H-D Japan for higher licensing fees.  After test-riding 400 miles on the 'Knuck', Alfred Childs' son Richard felt the machine was unsuitable for the Japanese market, and not ready for production.  Unhappy with the licensing pressures and the new bike, Sankyo sent its New York representative, Mr. Kusanobu, to pay a heavy-handed visit to the H-D Board in Milwaukee.  He complained of Childs' 5% commission and the increased licensing fees, and insisted Childs be removed from the Board, or Sankyo would cease financing H-D imports into Japan.  Not only that, but the existing range of sidevalve machines would now be sold simply as the 'Rikuo', with no more licensing paid to Harley at all.  Kusanobu was nearly thrown out on his ear, but he delivered on his threats, and the Rikuo as an independent marque was born. As compensation for Childs' loss of a lucrative business, he was made exclusive H-D importer for Japan, Korea, North China, and Manchuria.
Alfred R Child with one of the first EL 'Knucklehead' models imported into Japan (Sucher)
Which didn't last long. With the military increasing their grip on Japanese government and industry, agreements with foreign companies operating factories on Japanese soil were voided.  The military encouraged/supported other factories in making H-D copies, without paying licensing fees to H-D.  Japanse companies Kurogane, Aikou, Toko Kogyo, and SSD all produced H-D clones, almost exclusively for the military by 1937.  In August that year, Japan invaded China, and Alfred R. Child was warned to leave Japan immediately; his friend Mr Fukui purchased Childs' homes, businesses, and remaining H-D stock.  By 1939, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were in the same boat, with all American employees forced to leave Japan, their companies effectively nationalized by the military, with no compensation to their American owners.  Rikuo produced 18,000 'VL' models through 1942, when they switched to making torpedos.   In 1947, they resumed production of the old 750cc sidevalve model, and in 1950 the 1200cc sidevalver too, which continued until Harley-Davidson again established a dealership network in Japan in 1962, when Rikuo ceased trading.
Japanese Imperial Army troops on the march, with Rikuo outfit ('Net)
Information and photographs for this article were sourced from 3 excellent books:

- 'A Century of Japanese Motorcycles', by Didier Ganneau and Francois-Marie Dumas, which is to date the only comprehensive English-language book covering all years of the Japanese motorcycle industry.  Given the market dominance of Japanese motorcycles since the 1960s, this is a remarkable poverty of books, compared to every other nation's motorcycling contribution.  Photos scanned from here are listed as (Iwatate).  It's a must-own book!

- 'Japan's Motorcycle Wars', by Jeffrey Alexander, was reviewed in The Vintagent here.  An excellent dissertation, admittedly not a 'bike book' per se, but full of good stuff.

- 'Harley Davidson' by Harry Sucher, for the Rikuo story; the first complete history of the H-D marque, with much info from people who were still alive in the early days.  Extremely informative.  Photos listed at (Sucher).


GuitarSlinger said...

Brilliant Paul . A short education on Japanese M/C history for the masses ( in light of the reference books being a bit dry and obscure ) and a better response to Cyril's recent article .

Articles like this is why I frequent the site good sir !

Chas said...

As an ex-HD factory test engineer I loved your article. As far as I've learned, it's dead nuts accurate.

In the 1980's "The Cage" contained an old telescope suspension equipped WL/Rikuo.

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for the wonderful story on the Japanese motorcycle scene.
I do hope you will continue this wonderful story and provide us an ongoing account that includes the early days of the Honda motorcycle.
After seeing one of those very early Honda bolt on motors I couldn’t rest until I got an old bolt on motor myself—except mine is a Vincent Firefly. Guess I’ll make do…!

Kris TigerLady

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece!

- Randy Neil Stratton

Anonymous said...

Very interesting write up, thank you sir.

- Michael Alton

Anonymous said...

Great read Paul.

- Jim Dickerson

Anonymous said...

Great job! Great treastie on early japanese motorcycle history.

- Somer Hooker

Anonymous said...

Wow. Paul, you never cease to amaze. As a guy that dreams of owning a vintage bike someday, you continually demonstrate how much there is to learn. Right now an old 91 Softail, purchased new, is as close as I've made it to a vintage bike. Still watching and trying to learn.
- David King

Anonymous said...

Kudos for the history lesson.

- Charles Stanton

Anonymous said...

Great in depth article Paul. I figured there was much more history there than I'd previously heard!

- David Morrill

Anonymous said...

As usual great article Paul.

- Anibal Martinez

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul, your site is amazing.

- Matt Olsen

Anonymous said...

Great read.

- Bill Dietrich

American motorcycles said...

Very interseting and educational on the Japanese motorcycle history.

Thanks a lot.


BlackCountryBiker said...

Fascinating subject. I'm really interested in the history of the Japanese Motorcycle industry and have read both of the books you mention. I also edited and co-wrote a shorter book called "100 Years of Japanese Motorcycles" for the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club about 13 years ago and I have a few posts on my own blog about the subject, like this one here Thanks again for such an informative and educational blog - I don't know where you find the time.

Anonymous said...

Paul, what a buatiful coverage storey. Thanks very much.
Shoni Ben Cnaan

jake tyler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is a topic that is close to my heart...
Best wishes! Exactly where are your contact details though?

my page - Quotes **

Joey said...

Cool bitches! They are in such good quality for being so dated. There is so much history in each picture its amazing.

Bakhirun said...

Stumbled across your great history and read it with enjoyment.

"Give big space to the festive dog that shall sport in the roadway." (I trust you've seen that famed comment, from a 1930s Japanese police manual on driving in that country).

From the early 1960s until the end of the decade I was involved with the industry, working with Kawasaki as they acquired Meguro, Tohatsu and (as I recall) Bridgestone. The "heavy industry" guys knew extremely little about motorcycling, which is why the early Kaws had fantastic engine/tranny units and sort of by-guess-and-by-god running bits (mostly in the Meguro tradition - farmer's bikes).

Eventually I was hired by the late Ivan Wagar as JAPAN CORRESPONDENT for Cycle World, but found that most hot info and secrets leaked out of the US (California) representative companies. Still it was a great time and I was even sponsored by Pop Yoshimura at the 1966 Japan Grand Prix, where I earned my sole world points.

Thanks again for your sterling efforts.

Byron Allen Black
Parakansalak, West Java

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Tess B said...

Dear Sir,
I have recently found a 1925 Japanese
'Two-Cycle No-Water Injection Motor Handling Code" (google translate app).It is in not mint but OK condition.I am wondering if there is a market for this kind of manual and I happened on your blog. This looked so interesting I couldn't throw it away.
Tess B

Bakhirun said...

Hi Tess B,

It's quite hard to say whether there would be any interest in this document but if you had the time and patience you might want to try listing it on eBay or a similar on-line commercial outlet. I'd 'start high', maybe around $500, and then come down if you don't get any nibbles. I have had similar thought for a couple of original Beat-era publications I have. Found out they were worth a LOT less than I'd imagined.