Japanese Motorcycle History; the Early Years: 1900 to World War II

Author: Mark Bayer


The intention of this paper is to give a more complete and detailed background to the history and development of the Japanese motorcycle before WWII than can currently be found.  Information about the industry after WWII to the end of the 1950's is much easier to come by and Japanese motorcycle history after the early 1960's is commonplace.  My primary goal is that of identifying the social, political, financial, and philosophical underpinnings to the early development of the Japanese motorcycle.  My interest in this topic grew as I attempted to do my own study, but found that there is little information available regarding these earliest years.  I spent over a year doing a casual study before I decided to record my own understanding of these primitive years.  Hopefully, this paper will answer some questions about the earliest history of the Japanese motorcycle and give you some information which will increase your appreciation of this topic.

Japan had shown a limited interest in the motorcycle as early as 1903, although the first motorcycle was seen in Japan before 1900.  As in America, Europe, and other parts of the world, the bicycle was the precursor to the motorcycle.  This was also the case in Japan.  As is commonly understood, the bicycle had become a popular form of transportation in the west, and its evolution led directly to the development of the motorcycle.  In Japan, however, most of the country was largely rural, and the majority of people were poor, so the motorcycle developed only in areas with larger populations.  Being a mountainous country was also a factor which created many pockets of isolated farmers, most of whom remained in the dark ages of transportation development.  The dominant forms of transportation in Japan were carts or wagons drawn by horses or oxen.  The rickshaw was also popular.  Japan also had a public rail system which grew exponentially from the 1880's to WWII.  The popular Japanese bicycles of the day had big front wheels like those in America and Europe, but after the early 1900's, the safety bicycle became dominant in Japan, as in the west.  The safety bicycle allowed for an engine to be easily attached somewhere on the frame.  It was the development of the internal combustion engine which allowed for development to proceed toward the motorcycle.  This is an important point, because the bicycle was a foundation in which to test the power and reliability of an engine!  When the internal combustion engines became comparatively reliable, they were placed on anything which worked better with power.  The internal combustion engine was not developed as a reliable source of power till the very end of the 1800's.   It was the De Dion Bouton, a French engine design, which first caught on.  The De Dion Bouton was approximately 200cc, and produced somewhere between 1.5 and 2 horse power.  This engine was the first reliable, simple, and easily reproduced design which was copied by hundreds of manufacturers.  This little engine transformed transportation.  The De Dion Bouton company built three wheelers and later automobiles.  Their engines were powering 2, 3, and four wheeled vehicles engineered by dozens of companies around the world.  Within just a few years, nearly everyone interested in powered transportation had made a similar copy of this engine.  There were other engines which had been built such as the Butler, the Millet, and the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, but none of these had nearly the influence as the De Dion Buton motor!  In America Indian, Thor, Merkel, Thomas, Orient, Auto-Bi, and dozens of other makes had copied this basic design, and were building their own similar engines.  In England the Holden, AJS, Norton, OK Supreme, Triumph, and Werner motorcycles emerged along with many other brands.  In France, Belgium, and Holland the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, Buchet, Clement, and Peugeot emerged.  There were dozens of other brands of motorcycles as well which could be mentioned, but are not important to this article!   Some engines were nearly identical, some were marginally different, but all were using the basic De Dion Buton template as their foundation.  From 1894 to 1903, there were dozens of experimental motorcycles from America and Europe which were built and marketed on a limited basis and were not only very similar, but were basically engines on a bicycle.  These machines were the foundation of the emerging motorcycle industry.  The Japanese motorcycle industry started in a similar fashion with one major difference.  After the early 1900's, the first Japanese motorcycles copied existing American and European machines primarily as an attempt to copy the west.  Japan's interest was not to necessarily create a popular new form of public transportation, but was an effort to emulate the technology of the west. so as to not become dependent technologically or militarily.

According to an article published under the title "Centennial History of the Japanese Car," the first motorcycle seen in Japan was a Hildebrand & Wolfmuller which was displayed in Tokyo in 1896.   I was not able to open the link provided, but Alexander confirms this as factual (Alexander p.24).  It was not until around 1901 to 1903 that the motorcycle reappears in Japan and then in very small numbers.  Let's consider the influences which allowed the motorcycle to be developed in pre WWII Japan.  This development is closely connected to the political history and survival needs of the nation.  Japanese motorcycle development begins after the Meiji renewal dating from around 1868 to 1912.  Japanese leaders led by Emperor Meiji recognized that their country was far behind the west in technology and economic development.   They realized that their status and strength as a nation was connected to their modernization and industrialization.  The decision was made to copy the governmental systems of the west, especially the US, Britain, and Germany.  Because the Japanese people were poor having been governed by their former feudalistic system and having a poor educational system, a major transformation was necessary.  By heavy investing by the Japanese government, developing a new educational system for the masses, bringing in professionals from many fields to train Japanese artisans, and by allowing the creativity of the masses to explore the development of new businesses, a fast pace national development was sought.  New businesses evolved quickly, and the successful ones were strongly supported by the government, then sold below the cost of their developmental costs to committed and capable managers and investors.   By 1900, Japan had caught up with the west in the areas of textiles, metallurgy, railroad systems, and commerce.  As Japan entered the 20th century, the country wanted to copy the west through industrialization, road and transportation developments and entrepreneurship by capable visionaries.  The years before the turn of the century and untill  around 1937 (just before WWII) were some of the most tumultuous years of social, industrial, educational, and governmental change for Japan.  Nearly everything was rapidly changing.  Japan grew from a backwards feudal country, to one which had to modernize to survive in the emerging 20th century world.  This fast paced need to develop moved Japan from a "shogun" state (regional rulers established by the Emperor) to a centralized nation state which had become an Imperial power which controlled Korea, Taiwan, and a small part of China.  This extraordinary growth moved Japan from a rural nation of simple farmers to the beginnings of becoming an industrial giant.  By the very early 1920's Japanese exports, especially in the textile business, brought new wealth to the masses.  This wealth allowed increasing larger numbers of people to buy cars and motorcycles.  This was also the time when there was a huge increase in the numbers of imported motorcycles. From America, Indian, Harley Davidson, and Henderson motorcycles were imported.  From Great Britain, Matchless, Norton, AJS, and Velocettes were imported.  From Germany, NSU and BMW's were also imported in low numbers.   There were probably other brands which made their way into Japan, but the above brands were the most prominent ones.  On September 1, 1923, Japan was struck with the Great Kanto earthquake which was devastating to the country.  It most impacted the center of the Honshu Island (center and coastal area of the mainland) and had its greatest impact in several of the largest cities.  Over 143,000 people were killed and another 40,000 were missing, never to be found.  Along with the large number of deaths there was an epidemic of disease along with a 40 foot tsunami which destroyed hundreds of homes along with massive road destruction.   The reconstruction costs which came with the Kanto earthquake stifled the progressive development of the country for decades.  As the author of the Smithsonian article stated, the quake put "an end to a period of optimism symbolized by that city, the Kanto earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward  militarism and war" (Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine).  Some historians say that it had a continuing financial impact which continued to the WWII era.  From this disaster to the WWII period, Japan was even more limited and guarded with its financial resources, and more guarded as a country.

Pre WWII Japanese motorcycle development could be divided into three basic periods of development.  The first was the period from just before 1900 to around 1907.  During this first period there were just a few people interested in this new type of two wheeled vehicle.  What interest there was, came from people seeing a Hildebrand & Wolfmuller motorcycle sometime around 1896, along with seeing an American Mitchel in 1901-3.  Several Japanese engineering types, artisans, or machinists attempted to make their own machines copied from the very limited number of motorcycles which they had seen on Japanese soil.  There were no official Japanese manufacturers known to exist during this earliest time period.  This was essentially the stage in which the interest for an 0riginal Japanese motorcycle first emerged.   The second stage came between 1908 to around 1916.  By this time, Japan had moved from a backwards nation to one with much stronger industrial and military strength.  Along with automobiles, utility vehicles and motorcycles were being developed for utilitarian purposes.  Japanese motorcycle builders were hard at work copying the west, and at this point in time were not attempting to surpass current machines in technical developments.  Because the industry was new, and because they thought that the west already had the most advanced machinery, just getting reliable and competent working vehicles was their primary goal.  Japan's engineering potential was beginning to materialize.  The third period begins in the late teens to the start of WWII.  Japans economy grew at a fast pace, however, during this time period a large portion of the national resources went to support the growth of the military.  Large amounts of money went to manufacturers to build equipment which would bolster Japans military strength, and little was spent on products to benefit the needs or interests of the masses.  During this period of time there was an effort to surpass the west in technology; however, western models were still heavily copied.  Because there was government money being invested in the development of various types of transportation, factories began to spring up.  Before the Kanto earthquake, government money was available to the innovator.  After the great earthquake, money was funneled to rebuild the damaged nation, and after much rebuilding had been done, money was heavily directed toward military goals.