Now, not many people realise that the Japanese motorcycle industry is actually over 100 years old. Technically, it can be traced back to the first powered bicycle that was imported into the county back in 1896, but within 10 years, there were a number of talented engineers building powered two-wheelers in backyard workshops, notbaly Shimazu Narazo, who had built his own chassis and engine in 1909. By the end of the 1930s, contrary to most motorcycle history books I have read, Japan actually had a thriving motorcycle culture with over 50 manufacturers producing everything from 20cc motorised bicycles to licensed Harley-Davidsons. There was a need for cheap, reliable transport outside of the cities, where the road infrastructure was poor at best. Within the cities, there was also a growing band of motorcycle hipsters who loved posing, touring (tonori) and racing and to satisfy demand from the Imperial army, Harley-Davidson had been exporting bikes to Japan since 1917! There was also a growing Motorcycle Riding Club scene, in fact there were over twenty active clubs by 1920 and at least three specialist motorcycle magazines. The Japanese had also witnessed motorcycle racing similar to the events being staged in Europe, America and Australasia - racing on horse tracks and cycle tracks, road racing on unmade roads and path racing around parks and lakes were all popular and there were also some purpose built stadiums like the Tamagawa Speedway. Motorcycles at the time were known as Tetsuba (Iron Horses) or Nirinsha (simply two-wheeled vehicles), A later slang term used to describe motorcycles was Tansha, derived from the word jidojitensha meaning powered bicycle.
The 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.
Following their surrender, Japan had to slowly rebuild itself. The occupying American forces began to entertain each other (and the locals) by staging amateur motorcycle races and a new motorised bicycle industry began to emerge as the nation started to mobilise itself once again. 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, but this time, the only war on the horizon was a motorcycle war! - With over 100 manufacturers producing powered two-wheelers, there were bound to be a whole load of casualties, and as the history books have proved, less than a dozen companies survived the 1950s and of those, only the "big four" of Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha have survived to this day.
The following photographs are from the Asama Memorial Cottage, at the foot of Mt Asama, the home of the legendary dirt road races which were the Japanese version of the Isle Of Man TT. The bikes are all from the 1950s and were produced by companies that will be virtually unknown in the West, and as you can see, the Japanese were producing some tasty wheels at the time, so much for Edward Turner's famous gaffe - "We have nothing to fear from the Japanese".
|Motorcycle Racing at the Tamagawa Speedway, November 1949.|
|ASAHI FA-II / 1954 - 250cc; 7.6bhp; 4200rpm.|
The Asahi was manufactured by Miyata Seisakusho of Tokyo, who had been producing motorcycles since 1933.
The Asahi AA of 1933 was the first mass produced motorcycle in Japan.
|CABTON RBH / 1954 - 350cc; 16bhp; 5500rpm.|
|COLLEDA ST5 / 1957 - 123cc; 7.5bhp; 5500rpm:|
Colleda and SJK were both names used by the Suzuki Loom comapny, later to become Suzuki motorcycles.
|HOSK DB / 1958 - 498cc parallel twin; 26bhp; 5200rpm:|
The Hosk was very closely based on the German Horex 500 and was produced to very high standards.
|LILAC LS18II / 1960 - 247cc V-Twin; 19.5bhp; 7800rpm:|
Lilac produced some highly advanced v-twin machines and also produced the 500cc Marusho Magnum which was exported to the USA in the early 60s.
|TOHATSU PA55 / 1955 - 80cc; 3.5bhp; 4800rpm:|
Tohatsu produced some very high spec, small capacity machines, including the famous Tohatsu Runpet racer.
Tohatsu are still producing engines today, mainly for agricultural use and boats.