The cover of Jeffrey W. Alexander’s excellent new book, ‘Japan’s Motorcycle Wars’

Jeffrey Alexander has produced, in ‘Japan’s Motorcycle Wars’ (UBC Press, 2008) a scholarly account of the deepest origins of the Japanese motorcycle industry, exploring a host of tangential issues which impacted the early and later development of the industry as a whole. The book is academic in tone and structure, and feels like a doctoral thesis; he explicitly states that it isn’t meant to be a ‘motorcycle book’, and there are few exemplary photos, but anyone seriously interested in Japanese motorcycle history would find the book a rewarding read.

Production line at the Fuji ‘Rabbit’ scooter factory in the late 1940s; definitely a hand-built body, at the least! And a different world from the highly centralized, efficient, and modern production lines Japan became famous for in the 1970s…

The gem of the book, interestingly, isn’t the author’s; it’s a translation of a series of interviews conducted in Japan in 1972, of the Executives of several failed companies, and several interesting characters important to the Industry, including Kenzo Tada. These excerpts provide a diamond-hard insight to the ruthless and aggressive tactics used by successful companies to get ahead and stay there, including breaking agreements and cutting off supplies of vital components to competitors. The book also clarifies the attitude of the Japanese government, and agencies such as MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) which promoted all industries post-war, whose influence gave a great boost to certain companies, most notably Honda.

The Honda Type A moped, their first production model from 1946, using surplus generator motors.

In a far-sighted series of moves (and in total contrast to Britian or the US), massive cash incentives were granted to companies willing to adopt new techniques which benefitted several industries at a stroke, and which rewarded the development of the Japanese economy as a whole. As an example, MITI gave Honda 400,000 yen to investigate whether die-casting would give more accurate results than sand-casting his aluminum parts, and a further y100,000 when the experiments worked. Honda calculated, as did MITI, that the payback point of installing the die-casting equipment would come when production leaped from hundreds to thousands of units per month. Cash infusions and consequent increases in the volume of motorcycles produced are all listed in the book, which mentions as well the boost (like an Archibald Low rocket in fact) to all the major industries when the US forgave Japan’s war reparations debt.

The Tamagawa Olympia Speedway races on November 2, 1949, with tens of thousands of spectators for Japan’s first post-war race.

Alexander makes an argument that the successful motorcycle manufacturers post-war had all undertaken technically challenging munitions contracts during WW2, in which their production lines (out of necessity) were designed for use by unskilled labor – all of the skilled labor having been called off to war. This gave Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki especially, a great advantage over their dozens of rivals, as they all had experience with mass-production techniques, where any part was interchangeable with another, without the need for fussy and expensive ‘hand assembly’… and therein lay the doom of the handbuilt motorcycle.

Racers at the Tamagawa Speedway races on November 2, 1949; the first and third bikes are Meguro singles with Harley-Davidson forks (Meguro built H-D clones under license from the 1930’s); the second bike is an Ariel Red Hunter clone by Cabton.

There are a few choice anecdotes buried in the text: “Immediately after the war, Honda took some time off from manufacturing and whiled away the better part of a year drinking medicinal alcohol and working very little.”… [Marusho] “signed an import contract with the owner of a Los Angeles sushi restaurant…” Monarch Motorcycles had dealers buying product “with a rucksack stuffed full of y100 notes…however, the promisory note appeared on the scene – and these notes were a problem.” [!]

Tokyo police forces with Kawasaki (Meguro) W1 twins,Shiro-bai (white bikes), 1969; licensed copies of the BSA A10 650cc ‘Golden Flash’

Some fun facts;

– in the 1920’s, Japan was Harley-Davidson’s #2 export customer, after Australia. Soichiro Honda copied their system of dealer support for the motorcycles they sold.

– postwar, the Americans established motorcycle racing (with legal betting) in Japan, to encourage industry, and raise money for local gov’t, the Japanese Red Cross, and m/c manufacturers. In 1950, six companies – Meguro, Rikuo, Cabton, Abe, Asahi, and Showa – split 4.6million yen in subsidies. A single US-sponsored race in 1950 netted over 1million yen, and each race was attended by 30,000 to 95,000 people.

What could be more Japanese than Sumo wrestlers enjoying a Honda Super Cub on the beach? ‘You meet the largest people on a Honda’