The History of the Japanese Bicycle Industry
Why was Japan the ideal land to buy bicycles?
One reporter states that, “Populist Senator Stewart of Nevada… attributes it all to cheap labor and Japanese cleverness of imitation” (1).
The reason Japanese bicycles could be bought for only twelve dollars was because the workers were paid unfairly and the manufacturers were skilled at copying American bicycles.
This article will analyze the extensive history of the bicycle in Japan prior to 1990.
Prior to the turn of 19th century, many Western nations considered Japan to be one of the world’s cheapest bicycle manufacturers. In a 1895 article from the Chicago Tribune, one reporter stated that:
Japan seems to be the ideal land in which to purchase bicycles…good wheels are sold over there, and at wholesale at $12 each. (1)
This quote is significant because it reveals that Japanese bicycles could be bought at this time for only twelve dollars, a price that was drastically cheaper than most bicycles in the United States. On average, American bicycles could be purchased for about $50 dollars.
Factoring in inflation, a twelve dollar bicycle in 1895 would be worth about $310 dollars today. In comparison, a fifty dollar bicycle in 1895 would be worth about over $1300.
America was very adaptable to international markets, creating products that exploited the religion and culture of Japan. Furthermore, Dr. Bicycle suggests that the “commercial slogans” that the reader saw in Japan were, in fact, from American bicycles companies.
Japan remained a minority in the bicycle industry over the next fifty years, controlling a very marginal amount of the international market (France and U.S. were the most dominant). During the 1970’s, America was recognized as the first country to capitalize on international cultures through bicycle production. In a 1973 column from The Washington Post called Dr. Bicycle, one reader asked:
Dear Dr. Bicycle: The last time I was in Japan I saw a number of bicycles that had Japanese words along the rims of their wheels. Were these commercial slogans? (15)
This question reveals an interesting observation about the impact of American capitalism on the Japanese culture and religion. The reader questioned if the words written on the Japanese wheel were commercial slogans, which suggests that Americans were highly aware of the dominance of the United States in the international bicycle market. Regardless, Dr. Bicycle’s response to the question provides another interesting look into the impact of American capitalism on the Japanese culture and religion:
Dear Reader: They were probably Buddhist prayers. Japanese Buddhists utilize prayer wheels in their worship, with each revolution of the wheel signifying one prayer. Bicycle prayers are credited to American ingenuity, as a way of capitalizing on the Japanese religious practice. (15)
Cheap Bicycles from Japan
Prior to the 1970’s, Japan was still primarily known for producing cheap knock-offs of American bicycles. However, most Japanese bicycles were also not designed for the height and weight of Americans. This cultural difference presented a problem for Japanese bicycle manufacturers. To make matters worse, this problem exponentially increased due to the hunger and radiation suffering from World War II.
During this time, Japanese people were considered to be much shorter and skinnier than Americans. The most widely distributed Japanese bicycle was the Royce Union, a steel 10-speed that was available in only one size— 20”.
American bicycle scholars like Sheldon Brown have noted that the Royce Union was considerably too small for an average American man. Therefore, Japanese bicycles remained a minority in the bicycle industry because their products were not adaptable to the average American consumer.
In a 1990 article from The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt described the ways, in which, Japan experienced a second industrial revolution that emphasized mass-produced customization:
At the factory of the National Bicycle Industrial Co. Ltd., humans, robots, and computers together build made-to-order bicycles on an assembly line, each fitted to a customer’s measurements and preferences and delivered within two weeks. The line offers 11,231,862 variations…a separate model for every customer, and is taking the lead in creating a world of mass-produced diversity. (A29)
The marriage of Henry Ford efficiency with old-fashioned customization was the basis of Japan’s second industrial revolution. With international consumers wanting higher quality than is possible through mass production, Japan became the first country to adapt to the new demands of the bicycle market.
Successful Japanese Bicycles
The first wave of successful Japanese bicycle companies began in the early 1970’s with the introduction of the Nichibei Fuji Cycle Company into the U.S. market. The company established a headquarters in New York City called Fuji America in 1971, setting up regional distributors for their bicycles along the entire East Coast. Nichibei Fuji Cycle Company quickly became a successful bike manufacturer and U.S. importer with their three breakthrough models— the Newest, The Finest, and the S-10-S.
In a 1975 column of Dr. Bicycle from The Washington Post, one section read:
Dear Dr. Bicycle: The game of bicycle one-upmanship is being played to the hilt. Right after you wrote about the bike company that introduced a $1500 10-speed, Panasonic outdid them. The new Professional Race made by Panasonic has a suggested retail price of $4,000. Isn’t that ridiculous? Dear Reader: Yes. (51)
The reader’s commentary reveals several interesting observations about the early stages of successful Japanese bicycle companies in the United States. First, he states that Panasonic, a Japanese multinational corporation, is engaged in competition with American bicycle companies. This suggests that Japanese companies like Nichibei Fuji and Panasonic were beginning to contend in the U.S. market. Absent from the reader’s comment is any reference to cheap labor or poor-quality products. Instead, the reader is amazed by Panasonic’s ability to compete with American companies. Therefore, this indicates that Japanese bicycle companies were beginning to seriously compete with the American market because they had become more adaptable to the demands of the U.S. market. Furthermore, it is fascinating to note that in the span of about 100 years, Japan went from being considered one of the cheapest bicycle manufacturers in the world, to one of the most expensive.
Did you know Panasonic was a bicycle dealer?
The United States, however, rejected the mass-produced customization approach to manufacturing bicycles. This was most indicated by a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which determined that, “the bicycle industry must develop flexible manufacturing and customized products—and that U.S. industry, so successful with standardization, is not adapting fast enough to this future” (A29). This quote is significant because it indicates that, increasingly, consumers throughout the world were becoming more sophisticated, and were no longer content with identical, mass-produced goods.
As Japanese companies continued to invade the U.S. markets from 1975-1984, Panasonic became even more recognized as a top-quality Japanese bicycle importer. Similar to Hiatt’s article about the mass customization of National Bicycle Industries, one reporter from theChicago Tribune wrote:
There are three reasons why the Panasonic bicycle is the best bike you can buy. First, all Panasonic dealers make sure that you purchase the right bicycle for your use. Secondly, Panasonic bicycles are only sold through authorized dealers since the bike has to be properly sized and assembled. And finally, all Panasonic bicycles are made of the highest quality materials. (F2)
Unlike bicycles manufacturers in the United States, Panasonic emphasized mass-produced customization. Therefore, Japan succeeded in becoming a significant competitor in the bicycle industry between 1975-1985.
However, many shifts in the bicycle industry occurred in the late 1980’s. First, sales declined as the culture of touring bicycles diminished in the United States. This has generally been attributed to the rise of mountain bicycles and mountain-biking culture. By 1987, Japanese bicycles had become too unaffordable for most Americans due to the economic downturn in the United States. In response, most of the Japanese bicycle industry shifted their production facilities to Taiwan. Therefore, Japan’s second industrial revolution that emphasized mass-produced customization died with the Japanese bicycle industry.
Overall, this paper analyzed the extensive history of the bicycle in Japan prior to 1990. By first studying the Japanese bicycle industry before the turn of the 19th century, I was able to demonstrate that Japan was once the ideal country to purchase bicycles. Moreover, by analyzing newspapers articles from the early 1970’s, I was able to show how America then capitalized on Japanese culture through bicycle production. But later articles in the late 1970’s and early 80’s suggested that a large bicycle invasion occurred in Japan and the United States during this time period. Reports indicated that this rise was due to a second industrial revolution in Japan, which emphasized mass-produced customization.
Brown, Sheldon. "Japanese Bicycles in the U.S. Market." Harris Cyclery. Accessed April
20, 2011. http://sheldonbrown.com/japan.html.
Chess, Stan. "In Japan: prayer-wheel bikes." The Washington Post, August 19, 1973, sec. W, p. 15. Accessed April 21, 2011.
Hiatt, Fred. "Japan Creating Mass-Produced Customization: New Industrial Revolution Seen Having Huge Impact." The Washington Post, March 25, 1990, sec. A, p. 29. Accessed April 20, 2011.
"TWELVE DOLLARS FOR A BICYCLE: Japan Is the Ideal Land to Buy Your Wheels In." The Washington Post, December 17, 1895, p. 1. Accessed April 20, 2011.
"Ask Dr. Bicycle." Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1975, p. 51. Accessed April 20, 2011.
"Top-quality bikes imported from Japan." Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1986, sec. F, p. 2. Accessed April 20, 2011.
"Good transit in Japan? You can bike on it." Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1984, sec. J, p. 19. Accessed April 21, 2011.