Alfred Rich Child and his family in Milwaukee, before heading off to Japan in 1924 (Sucher)

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.

A Harley Davidson factory-built racing special, made-for-Japan-only road racer, with 500cc OHV engine (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.

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)

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…”

The Harley Davidson ‘Rikuo’, a 1200cc VL (Iwatate)

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.

Alfred R Child with one of the first EL ‘Knucklehead’ models imported into Japan in 1936 (Sucher)

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.

Japanese Imperial Army troops on the march, with Rikuo outfit (‘Net)

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.

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).






Related Posts

The Vintagent Original: Model X

Test riding a 1934 Matchless Model X, an...

Book Review: ‘Lewis Leathers’

Lewis Leathers, established in 1892, is...

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter