The Japanese Rise to Domination

Sheng Kan Yamada motorcycle shop, early 1920's

World War One did a great deal to develop the British and European motorcycle industries, and for sheer volume of production the British motorcycle industry led the world for years. But from the 1960s onwards Japanese motorcycles have dominated the world’s markets.
But few people realize that the Japanese motorcycle trade is well over 100 years old, beginning with a 1894 German Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Motorrad  imported into the county in 1896 by the Jumonji Trading Company. The first American made motorcycles began to appear soon afterwards, with a Thomas "Auto-Bi" (powered with the De Dion-Bouton 200cc 4 stroke) advertised for sale in September 1901. The Thomas carried a considerable price tag at 500 Yen but imported machines soon included models from Orient-Aster, Mitchell, Gladiator and others.

Narazo Shimazu (NS)

1909 NS
 In 1903 a young Narazo Shimazu became fascinated by the new motorcycle races which were rapidly gaining popularity in Tokyo. In 1908 at the age of 20 Shimazu established the "Shimazu Motor Research Institute" to develop a two cycle 400cc motorcycle engine which he installed in a Triumph frame he had purchased specifically for the purpose. This was the first motorcycle manufactured in Japan.

 Within a year Shimazu had completed the construction of a four cycle engine, producing a total of twenty units which he put his initials "NS" on. Customers were reportedly disappointed that these early motorcycles often broke under their own weight while traveling on the rough roads of the era. Sadly, no actual example of this early NS exists today and only a documentary record remains.

For the next few years Shimazu experimented on various engines for cars, boats and even airplanes: but in 1922 he turned his attention back to motorcycles. In 1926 Shimazu completed a new design called the "Arrow First". After completing six machines based upon this design he decided to enroll four of them in a cross-country caravan from Kagoshima (on the island of Kyu¯shu¯) to Tokyo. On 2 March, 1926 all four motorcycles arrived in the nation’s capital after a fifteen day ride of nearly 2,300 kilometers. Shimazu’s trip was covered from start to finish in the national press, and his journey across the country marked a significant change in Japan’s transportation industry; independent, motorized travel was indeed the wave of the future.
Unfortunately his company went bankrupt later in the same year.

Shimazu NS 1
Determined to keep working, he soon teamed up with O¯ hayashi Yoshio to found a new company: Japan Motors Manufactures ( Nihon Motorcycle Company NMC) in Osaka. At Japan Motors Shimazu worked on turning his Arrow First design into a viable consumer product, finally completing a four stroke, sidevalve 250cc machine with a two stage transmission. This was Japan's first actual production motorcycle; the company turned out 50 to 60 machines a month and sold over 1700 machines within three years.
Motorcycles at the time were known as Tetsuba (Iron Horses) or simply Nirinsha (two-wheeled vehicles). A later slang term used to describe motorcycles was Tansha, derived from the word "jidojitensha", or powered bicycle.

Miyata Asahi

Asahi No. Triumph type. 4-cycle, 3.5 hp.
 In 1881 Miyata Eisuke had established Miyata Manufacturing, a small gun factory in Tokyo. After being asked by a foreigner to repair a bicycle in 1889 Eisuke soon began bicycle repair as a subsidiary business; once Japan began importing cheaper firearms in 1900 his son Eitaro Eisuke had the shop converted entirely to bicycle production. By 1908 Miyata was the major Japanese bicycle manufacturer and was exporting bicycles to Shanghai. In 1914 Miyata’s directors decided to investigate motorcycles and ordered a Triumph from Great Britain; after struggling to reverse-engineer the design Miyata’s engineers developed a four stroke, 3.5 horsepower motorcycle: the Asahi.

Displayed at the Ueno Industrial Encouragement Exhibition in Tokyo in 1914, the motorcycle was so well received that it was purchased by the Imperial Household Ministry and ultimately delivered to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department for inspection and further testing. But although Miyata continued to experiment with motorcycle design they stopped production only two years later in order to resume focus on their more profitable firearms and bicycle lines.
The Asahi motorcycle wouldn't start production again until 17 years later; in 1933 a new model was finally released as the Asahi AA, with a press-formed steel sheet frame and 175cc air cooled, two-stroke 5hp engine. The AA took advantage of the efficiencies of mass production and sold a total of 40,000 units, continuing production until the Chinese invasion of 1939. It was Japans first mass-produced motorcycle.
Asahi AA

Besides Shimazu Motors and Miyata Manufacturing there was no real indigenous motorcycle industry, but by this time a number of engineers had begun building powered two-wheelers in backyard workshops; the Japanese were interested in motorcycles as inexpensive transportation and although British, European, and American motorcycles were being imported to Japan in increasing numbers they were prohibitively expensive. Some of the more significant efforts by these individuals included a two-stroke, chain-driven 300cc Sanda¯ (Thunder) brand motorcycle produced in Osaka by Watanabe Takeshi and Kuga Mosaburo¯ in 1921; the SSD, a 350 cc machine built in Hiroshima by the Shishido brothers Kenichi and Giitaro¯, and the 1,200 cc Giant which was created by Count Katsu Kiyoshi in 1924.

Circa 1928 350cc OHV model P.72, unknown manufacture.
Meguro Motorcycles

In 1922 Murada Nobuharu founded the Murada Iron Works based in Shibuya-cho, Tokyo prefecture. After many of Tokyo's manufacturing shops were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923 Japan faced a critical shortage of parts for its newly established automobile and motorcycle markets. This provided a new opportunity for entrepreneurs, who quickly turned their attention to the production of both parts and finished motorcycles in an effort to fill the void. Murada began manufacturing replacement parts for imported machines such as the Triumph but he was soon hand-building engines of his own design.

Early Meguro factory team

Joined by Count Katsu Kiyoshi, another motorcycle enthusiast, Murada adopted the name "Meguro Works" in 1924 -possibly in honor of the local Meguro racetrack which was popular from 1907 to 1933 (the racetrack was relocated to the west in Fuchu-Shi as Tokyo expanded outward). A year later, Murada welcomed Suzuki Koji as his partner. The first Meguro motorcycles were single-cylinder models based on the British singles of the era or knock-offs of the Harley-Davidson Model J big twins.

Meguro Z97, Model 1

 In 1937 Meguro introduced the Z97, their first true production machine with a 500cc rocker valve engine that may have been based on the Swiss Motosacoche JubilŽe Sport's 498cc OHV. In 1939 the Meguro Z97 was adopted as the official motorcycle of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and was used until the start of WWII.

The Harley Davidson Copies

Alfred R. Child
But the fledgling motorcycle industry had always faced serious competition from Europe and America and by the mid 1930s Harley Davidson was gaining dominance throughout Japan. In the early Twenties over 50 percent of all American-made motorcycles were exported: Indian was actively exporting 600-700 sidecar outfits per year to Japan at this time and Harley was very interested in expanding its export business into the Far East. They had hired Alfred Rich Child, an English born entrepreneur and adventurer, in 1921 and after a successful stint as their first export representative to Africa in 1922 he was promoted to head of HD's Japanese sales division in 1924. 

Child quickly became frustrated with the existing Harley-Davidson distributors who were buying spare parts locally rather than ordering from Milwaukee: they were also competing with each other in conflict of their contracted territories. Severing their contracts he focused on one successful dealer, Sankyo Company Limited. Through their Koto Trading Company division Sankyo had been surreptitiously receiving “bootleg” shipments of Harley-Davidsons that were supposed to be sold in Mongolia, in conflict with distribution agreements between Harley and the other distributors. But they had managed a respectable sales record and by August 1924 Child had brokered an agreement between Harley and Koto Trading to establish the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Sales Company of Japan. Within the next two years Harley sales in Japan had eclipsed Indian. 

1939 Kuro Hagane
 In 1935 Child convinced the Milwaukee company to built a factory in Shinagawa, Tokyo, and the first model produced at the new facility was the 'Model VFE' with the 'V' indicating its Far East origin; this was a replica of the standard JD74 Milwaukee-made Flathead.  Subcontractors produced various components from blueprints supplied by Milwaukee.

But Harley-Davidson's stake in its Tokyo factory was short-lived and in 1937 the factory was nationalized by the Japanese government during a rising tide of nationalism brought on by a global economic depression. Sankyo now took the helm, adopted the Japanese name "Rikuo," meaning "King of the Road" and were soon turning out the 'Rikuo Model 97' 74ci V twin. The Japanese military was engaged in hostilities in North China and Manchuria, and the Army contracted Nihon Nai-Enki of Hiroshima, Japan (The Japan Combustion Company, originally a division of Nihon Jidosha)  to produce a military version of the 74 cubic inch (1200cc) Big Twin Flathead. As the war ramped up production of the Rikuo was also farmed out to Nihon Nai-Enki. Harleys were still being imported into Japan but under an import tax that practically doubled:  this import tax eventually led to the end of sales shortly before Japan entered WWII in 1941.

Later model Rikuo 750
By 1920 there were over twenty active riding clubs and at least three specialist motorcycle magazines; the Japanese had also established motorcycle racing similar to the events being staged in Europe, America and Australasia, riding on horse tracks and cycle tracks. There were also some purpose built stadiums like the Tamagawa Speedway.

By the end of the 1930s Japan had over 50 manufacturers. The machines had filled a niche for cheap, reliable transport both outside of the cities where the road infrastructure was poor at best, and in the cities where there was a growing biker culture.

But this motorcycle scene virtually stopped as soon as Japan forced their way into World War 2, although one or two companies did continue to supply the military during the war. (Unfortunately, one of them, Kuro Hagane, had their production plant in Hiroshima.)  In 1941 the Tokyo Meguro Works was converted into a munitions factory and all motorcycle production was halted.

Following the Japanese surrender, occupying American forces began to entertain each other (and the locals) by staging amateur races and a new motorcycle industry began to re-emerge. Some of the pre-war names like Meguro and Miyata returned to motorcycle manufacture and many new names joined the scene; some drawing inspiration from British and German designs, others, like Honda and Bridgestone, started slowly by buying up small capacity army surplus engines and fitting them to bicycles.
By the end of the 1940s, Japan had entered its 2nd "transport revolution" with over 100 manufacturers producing motorcycles.

Masashi Ito was born in 1913, and worked from 1930-1935 at Soichiro Honda's Hamamatsu automobile repair shop. In 1946 Ito opened Marusho Car Repair Shop and a facility that made truck bodies for Toyota and Nissan, and in 1948 he established the Marusho Shokai Co., Ltd. with the intention of designing a motorcycle. His first successful prototype was patterned after a pre-war Zundapp: named the ML, it was completed in 1950 and featured a 150cc single with shaft drive. Mass production began in 1951 under the LB and LC titles, and the company was renamed as Marusho Motorcycle Industrial Co., Ltd.

Early Marusho / Lilac ad

Marusho soon had 31 models of motorcycles under the name Lilac, all but 2 of which were shaft-driven. The company produced 8,091 bikes in 1955 and 11,241 in 1959: their successful 250cc SY rapidly evolved through 4 more body styles, and scaled-down versions in 125cc-175cc were produced.
But by then Lilac's designs were several years behind Honda's, so in 1959 the time was right to re-work the entire product line. This came at a time when Honda was looking unbeatable and the Japanese government was actively seeking to rationalize (reduce the number of of manufacturers in) the vehicle industry. The dated 125cc and 250cc singles were upgraded to V-twins, probably inspired by the design of the 1953-1955 German Victoria Bergmeister 350cc.
In California, the M-C Supply Co. began importing the V-twin line, but Marusho was suffering cash-flow problems and exports was not sufficient to solve the issue. The company declared bankruptcy in 1961, and in 1962 Ito became a subcontractor for Honda. Many of their designers moved to Bridgestone and Honda, and the Lilac influence can be seen especially in the Bridgestones.

1964 Lilac MF 300cc

The company was reorganised in 1963 as the Lilac Co., Ltd., and returned to production in 1964 primarily to build a large opposed twin for the lucrative American market. A deal was struck with importers in California who organised the U.S. Marusho Corp. Lilac developed the ST based on the BMW 500cc engine but used different ignition and electrical systems as well as their own transmission and clutch so as not to infringe on BMW patents.The ST was produced in black with a silver headlight, rear fender and single right-hand toolbox: 600 were produced for 1965 but problems surfaced with the ring gears, generators and advance mechanism.
Lilac folded as a motorcycle manufacturer for the second time in 1966: Lilac was not a failure as a manufacturer, but did fail as a business. In fact less than a dozen companies survived the 1950s and of those only the "big four" -Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha- have survived to this day.

Rise of the Big Four

Honda Model A

Born in Hamamatsu, Japan in 1906, Soichiro Honda's father operated a blacksmith shop that also repaired bicycles. As a young man, Honda was apprenticed in an automotive garage in Tokyo, but he returned to Hamamatsu to open his own auto repair shop in 1924. Enamored with speed, he built his own race car but was subsequently injured in a racing accident:  in 1937, with financing from an acquaintance, Honda founded Tōkai Seiki (Eastern Sea Precision Machine Company) and began to make piston rings working out of the Art Shokai garage. Despite several initial failures he won a contract to supply piston rings to Toyota, but quickly lost it again due to their poor quality; he then enrolled in engineering school and began visiting factories around Japan to better understand Toyota's quality control processes, and by 1941 he was able to mass produce acceptable piston rings using an automated process that could employ even unskilled laborers.Tōkai Seiki was placed under control of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry during the war, and Toyota took a 40% stake in the company. After the production facilities were destroyed by both bombings and earthquakes, he sold the remains of the company to Toyota for ¥450,000 in 1945 and founded the Honda Technical Research Institute in October 1946.
Honda used the proceeds from the sale of his earlier company to purchase a supply of surplus two-stroke, 50cc Tohatsu generator engines which he modified to fit on bicycles and resold as "Model A" clip-on engines.

Honda Model D

The first Honda motorcycle that featured both a Honda designed motor and frame was produced in 1949. It was called the Model D for Dream. The success of this model was quickly followed by the model J Benly.
Honda wanted to sell a more powerful motorcycle that led to the 146cc over head valve four-stroke E-Type Dream. This was a motorcycle capable of producing 5 ½ horse power with a top speed of 50mph. The motorcycle featured Honda's own designed frame and suspension on both wheels.

Meguro S3

Meguro Works again achieved dominance in Japan, continuing to manufacture single-cylinder OHV motorcycles such as their 500cc Meguro Z97 and the newer 250cc Junior S3. A distinctive feature on the cylinder-head of late model Meguro's such as the S3 Junior is the red logo written in katakana, which is a Japanese syllabary that is used for the transcription of words in a foreign language.
Meguro remained as one of the top 10 manufacturers until 1960 when the company entered into a business arrangement with Kawasaki Aircraft Co.Ltd. and began production of its first two-cylinder model based on the BSA A7, the 500cc Meguro K1. For its day, the K1 was an advanced design and showcased modern-day manufacturing techniques with its air cooled , 4 stroke, twin OHV 496cc engine mounted in a double-cradle frame.

Meguro K1
 Founded in 1896 by Shozo Kawasaki, Kawasaki Heavy Industries originated as a shipping business and later opened their own shipyard building vessels based on western ship designs. By the time the company began working on motorcycle designs with Meguro they had a diverse range of product divisions, 
In 1961 Kawasaki produces its first complete motorcycle, the B8 125cc two-stroke. The next year saw a series of the two-stroke models from 50-250cc , with the 250cc disc-valve ‘Samurai’ attracting notice in the U.S. In 1963, Kawasaki and Meguro merged to form Kawasaki Motorcycle Co.,Ltd

Yamaha had been established as a musical instrument company since 1887, and manufactured aircraft propellers during the war. They started their motorcycle division during the late 1940's as a way to utilize the remains of their wartime production machinery after reviewing and discarding various other options such as sewing machines and aftermarket automobile parts. Due to their expertise in mechanical technology they had a slight advantage over other manufacturers who were starting from scratch; Yamaha's first motorcycle was introduced in August of 1954 and named the Yamaha YA-1 (AKA Akatombo, the "Red Dragonfly"), a two stroke single cylinder design modelled on the German DKW 125, which BSA and various other companies had also copied. By July of 1955 Yamaha was producing around 200 motorcycles per month.

Yamaha YA-1

1957 saw the launch of the Yamaha YD-1 twin cylinder, which could also be used as a racing bike; it quickly became a very popular machine and was raced in the United States Catalina Grand Prix in 1958.

1952 Suzuki Powerfree

Advertisement announcing Suzuki's 1954 racing win
In 1909 Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Company in the small seacoast village of Hamamatsu, Japan. In 1937 he decided to start a new venture, and based on consumer demand decided that a small car would be the most practical project. Within two years Suzuki had completed several prototypes, powered by an innovative liquid-cooled, four stroke, four cylinder engine. It featured a cast aluminum crankcase and gearbox and generated 13 horsepower from a displacement of less than 800cc.
With the onset of World War II, the government declared civilian passenger cars a “non-essential commodity” and Suzuki’s production plans ground to a halt. After the war the company went back to producing looms, but the cotton market collapsed in 1951.
A number of firms were offering “clip-on” gas-powered bicycle engines, and Suzuki’s thoughts went back to motor vehicles. His first design was a 36cc two-stroke engine powered bicycle called the “Power Free”. An innovative feature was the double-sprocket gear system which allowed the rider to pedal like a normal bicycle, use the engine as assist or simply disconnect the pedals and run on engine power alone. The patent office actually granted Suzuki a financial subsidy to continue research in motorcycle engineering, and the Suzuki Motor Corporation was born.

1954 Suzuki Colleda

In May 1954 Suzuki released their first real motorcycle, the Colleda CO. With a single-cylinder, 90cc four-stroke engine, this machine was designed to take advantage of new laws which allowed the Japanese to ride a 4-strokeup to 90cc without a driver's license. They were producing 6,000 motorcycles per month.

1958 Honda Super Cub C100: 4-stroke, 50cc, OHV

Meanwhile European and American motorcycle manufacturers were following a tedious improvement process, falsely confident that the small Japanese machines were only a niche market. They were putting out expensive, large bore cruisers and racing bikes and hardly gave a thought to the small Eastern bikes that were just beginning to show up on domestic markets. But the Japanese companies were quietly rewriting the rule book on an almost monthly basis. As stated by RealClassics.co.uk:
"If perceived wisdom stated four-stroke combustion technology couldn’t be improved above a certain compression ratio then the Japanese would investigate this and find out why. If there was a justifiable advantage to be had from a touch more compression they would adopt the science and apply it."

When Honda released their "Cub" series in 1958 they blindsided the western motorcycle companies and virtually took over the small displacement market thanks in large part to their unprecedented use of lightweight, cheap polyethylene to replace stamped metal parts. With a huge export sales drive, cheap prices and production goals of 30,000 machines per month it was the beginning of a massacre which culminated in the near total destruction of the British and European industries once Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki joined the party and began exporting big bore machines in the 1960s. For the next 30 years "The Big Four" dominated the global motorcycle market, taking every niche from motocross to cruising. With their introduction of big V-twin engines they even cut into the heart of the Harley-Davidson market.

1967 Suzuki 250 X-6 Scrambler
Today the winds of change are blowing again however; with the rebirth of Triumph in 1989, the recovery of Italy's Ducati and Aprilia and the increasing popularity of  BMW's GS series -plus a current global economy that prohibits many purchases of "sports toys"- dealerships for the Japanese brands are closing by the month. According to David Preston of Ride West BMW in Seattle:
"BMW, Triumph, and Ducati continue to gain market share and trot out new models and technological advances at a pace that is hearkens back to the Japanese efforts of three decades ago. The Japanese market planners have opted for the long-term. The two leading economies in the world at this time are China and India... the Japanese factories are now full speed ahead with a multi-faceted approach to manufacturing and marketing smaller motorcycles for the Indian and Chinese markets. It is not possible to run a business with a $100 profit on a $10,000 motorcycle, however, it is possible to run a business with a $100 profit on a $3000 motorcycle you are selling in the tens of thousands."

1978 Kawasaki Z1-R: the first "Superbike"

This was the concept that originally brought Honda from a small domestic producer into global domination,  and it may well be the concept that drives the next generation of the Japanese industry.

1980 Suzuki GSX 1100E


MOTO FREAKO- 1950s Vintage Japanese Motorcycles 

Meguro Motorcycles at theworldofmotorcycles.com
Pictorial History of Japanese Motorcycles; Cornelis Vandenheuvel (1997)
Japan's Motorcycle Wars: An Industry History; Jeffrey W. Alexander
Japans' Motorcycle Wars- Chapter 1.pdf (at ubcpress.ca)
Sayonara to Japanese Motorcycles by David Preston, November 2011


  1. Really enjoyed this. and was ther when it happened. Well not the early 1900's stuff but later .

  2. Hi,
    This is a great look into the motorcycle history of Japan.
    Just one mistake that I see:the bike that Mr Shimazu started building in 1922 was called Aero Fast and not Arrow fast as mentioned in the book Japan's Motorcycle Wars: An Industry History.See a picture of the gas tank that says clearly the name on the site of the grandson of the brother of Shimazu here: http://www.yamaguchi-munehisa.com/shimazu_brothers.html