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

Author: Mark Bayer


T   Japanese Motorcycle History; the Early Years: 1900 to  

                                    World War II.


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.

Noted below are four lists of Japanese motorcycle manufacturers which were in operation from 1900 to the beginning of the Second World War period.  Some names come up on all four lists such as Miyata and Meguro, while Toyo is found on three.  All the lists note at least 10 manufacturers from the 1900 to late 1930's period while the longest lists include 26 brands.  Many manufacturers did not make complete motorcycles and some brands may reflect a mixture of parts from various companies.  Furthermore, some names may reflect models of motorcycles rather than specific brands of motorcycles.

Four lists of Japanese motorcycles built from 1900 to the WWII period recorded from different sources; 

                                                   List  (I)   

NS Shimazu  1908 - 1909

Hino               1910

NMC              1912 - 1962      (Nippon Motor Corp.)

Asshi              1912 - 1964      (Miyata Works)

Miyata           1912 - 1964      (Miyata Works)

Toyo               1920 - 1960     (Mazda)

Thunder        1921

Mushashino  1923                  (Kogyo Mfg.)

Giant(Wasp)   1924 - 1954      (Komine)

Komine          1924 - 1956

Meguro          1924 - 1961       (Meguro Manufacturing)    

Aero Fast       1925 - 1927       (Nippon Motors)

Thunder         1925 - 1938      (Watanabe Takeshi)

Lion                1926 - 1933      (Osaka Bicycle)

Yamato          1927 - 1958       (Yamato/Lucky)

JAC                1928 - 1934       (Japan Automobile Co.)

New Era        1928 - 1937       (Nippon Jidosha)

SSD                1930 - 1935       (Shishido Brothers)

Abe Star        1930 - 1959

Daihatsu       1930 - 1979        (Daihatsu Kogyo)

HMC              1931                    (Hyogo Motors)

Ideal Real Car  1931                    (Yokoyama)

Tsubasa         1931 - 1960       (Tsubasa Industries)

Cabton           1932 - 1958       (Mizubo Jidosha)

Aikoku           1933 - 1958

Rikuo             1935 - 1962       (Rikuo Aristone)___Pre WWII motorcycles above this line

Showa            1939 - 1960      (Showa Works)

Yamaguchi    1941 - 1964       (Yamaguchi - Hodaka)

Emuro           1945 - 1961        (Health Motor Co.)

Health           1945 - 1961        (Health Motor Co.)

Bis Motor     1946

Mitsubishi    1946 - 1965       (Mitsubishi heavy Industries)

Fuji                1946 - 1968       (Fuji Heavy Industries)

Honda           1946 - current   (Honda Motor Company)

IMC               1947 - 1961        (Itoh Motor Co.)

Toyo              1947 - 1961        (Toyo Motor Co.)

Maruichi      1948 - 1959       (Maruichi Bicycle Co.)

Tohatsu        1948 - 1966       (Tokyo Hatsudoki Co.)

Lilac              1948 - 1967       (Marusho Motorcycle Co.)

 (derived from: A Century of Japanese Motorcycles; Ganneau.  Page 192)


                                          List  (II) 

Lizuka Trading      1899   self powered 2 wheeler, no other information

Torao Yamba         1908   engine in a bicycle frame

Narazo  Shimazu   1909   400cc  belt driven motorcycle

Miyata                      1913   175cc 2 stroke  (Asahi)   

                                   1921   OHV engine built - no manufacturer noted 

Shimazu                   1927  250cc motorcycle engine built

JAC (Meguro)         1928  250cc motorcycle becomes available

Miyata                      1933  2 stroke Asahi returns to production

Cabton                      1934  350 single built

Rikuo                        1935  builds Harley Davidson motorcycles under contract 

Meguro                     1937  500cc motorcycle built, first complete bike  Pre WWII motorcycles above this line

                                   1945  first post WWII motorcycles built, 127 total units - no manufacturers listed

Miyata                      1946    resumes motorcycle production

Honda                       1947   Honda begins selling bicycles with engines

Meguro                     1948   resumes motorcycle production (in 1962 joins Kawasaki)

Kawasaki                  1949   begins production of 125cc motorcycle

(derived from: 100 Years Of Japanese Motorcycles;  Pavey. Page 2)


                                                List (III)

Maruyama       1895 - 1940's  bicycles to motorized bicycles to motorcycles

Miyata              1900 - 1940's bicycles to motorcycles

Shimazu           1907 - 1929    

Nihon (NMC)         1908         from Shimazu

Toyo                 1920's-1940's (Mazda)

Meguro            1924 - 1940's  continues after WWII

Showa              1924 - 1940's continues after WWII

Abe                   1928 - 1931     joins Meguro in 1931

Japan Mo.Co. 1929     from  NMC dating back to 1908

Riuko               1933 - 1940's  copies Harley Davidson motorcycles under contract

Tokyo               1934                produces Aikoku motorcycles (called the Patriot)

Muzucho         1934                produces the Cabton motorcycle

Miyata             1935                 builds Asahi motorcycle

Sankyo            1935                 builds HD's under contract, name becomes Rikuo in 1936

Ritsurin           1936               

Meguro            1937  

All of these are pre WWII manufacturers   

(derived from: Japan's Motorcycle Wars; Alexander  pages 22 -  50)


                                                List (IV)

MIYATA: 1909-64 Japan
KUROGANE: 1930-40s Japan

MEGURO: 1937-64 Japan

TOHATSU: 1935-66 Japan

SANKYO (Rikyuo): 1935-62 Japan
SUZUKI: 1936- Japan
TAIYO: 19??- Japan

YAMATARGO: 1929-? Japan

YAMAGUCHI: 1941-64 Japan        dividing line between WWII and post WWII motorcycles
RABBIT: 1946-68 Japan

POINTER: 1946-62 Japan
HONDA: 1948- current  

ABE-STAR: 1949-1955 Japan

TOYO MOTOR: 1949-Early 1960's

KAWASAKI: 1949- Japan

(derived from; Classic Motorcycles web page: www.classicmotorcycles.com

This list has been adjusted to reflect the first years of Japanese motorcycle production to the later years of production.)


                These lists range from 11 listings to 26.  Note the following listings related to the period of Japanese motorcycle development mentioned above:

                                         1896 to 1906:          1908 to 1916:        1917 to 1941:

(I)                                             1                                      4                              21      (26 total)

(II)                                           1                                       3                                7      (11 total)

(III)                                          3                                      1                              12      (16 listed)

(IV)                                          0                                       1                                9      (10 listed)  

As is evident from the above figures, motorcycle development was exponential in growth as the years progressed.  List number (III) varies a great deal from the other lists. but if period (I) and period (II) are added together, the same dynamic is evident.  In the early years there were very few builders, but after the late teens the numbers of companies more than doubled.   The accuracy of the above figures is not known, but what can be seen is that the numbers of people or companies involved in motorcycle manufacturing or development more than doubled as Japan moved toward the WWII period.  This was to again transform into exponential growth after the war!    As a comparison, I will list American manufacturers from the same time period.  Note the following from Floyd Clymers "A Treasury of American Motorcycles" pages 166-7:

            (1899 to 1907)     28         (1908 - 1916)       42     (1917 - 1940)   9

This is a total of 79 American manufacturers making machines before WWII. As can be seen, America had a large number of manufacturers early on with the numbers dropping more than 2/3 after the late teens.  The sales of the inexpensive Ford Model T automobile, and the great depression after 1929 killed the motorcycle industry in the US.  Furthermore, these numbers do not reflect the one-off machines, or numerous manufacturers which never produced bikes to sell.  After WWII, America was left with Indian and Harley Davidson as the only two motorcycle brands commercially available along with a handful of scooters, like the Whizzer, Cushman, Powell, and Simplex.  In Europe (including the UK), the numbers are so much larger, that it would take an independent study to even begin to calculate the numbers.  England alone had well over 100 brands of motorcycles built before 1910, and well over another 150+ between the teens, and the WWII era.  It was recorded that England alone has had as many as 685 (one book lists 1,100) brands of motorcycles in their history.  The same is true of other European countries.  France, Germany, and Italy have had at least 1000 total brands since 1900.   These are actually conservative figures!  The US and Europe mushroomed with different brands of motorcycles before WWII but the numbers radically decreased after the war (www.ozebook.com - "A-Z of motorcycles").  In that this writing is concerned with pre WWII Japanese motorcycles, post WWII developments will not be covered with any detail.  To sum up,  Japan started very slow and grew in motorcycle development till WWII.  The US and Europe did the opposite.  Their numbers were large from 1900 to the 1940's, but motorcycle production nearly disappeared after WWII (the US was different in that before WWII nearly all brands had already disappeared).  Since WWII, Japan has become the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles, and the US and Europe have significantly decreased in volume (the US and Europe have produced many small specialty brands which were produced in very small numbers).  The point in the lists and numbers noted above is that Japan was growing in the numbers of companies which were building motorcycles, while America had a burst of new companies which began to die after the mid-teens.  Before WWII, Japan had seen a huge growth in the motorcycle industry while America had seen a significant decline.  England and Europe maintained their industry till the war (England in particular had large numbers of low volume manufacturers) then huge decreases in technological developments and production numbers ensued. 

The following can be said of these early Japanese motorcycle builders:

First, nearly all the early Japanese motorcycles were built in crude shops till the later teens.  Little government money was spent on motorcycle development, except when it was for military or governmental purposes.  Most of the efforts by these early builders was to make a reliable and functional national motorcycle, rather than motorcycles which could compete in the international marketplace.  Japanese made motorcycles were "primarily" engineering studies rather than attempts at making competitive machines.  It is not that Japanese builders did not want to compete; it is just that the international market place was struggling, especially in the US, so a greater goal was that of becoming self-sustainable rather than making competitive and marketable machines. I found no manufacturers during this early period which built motorcycles as a primary business.  These early builders thought that American and European motorcycles were the best, so the Japanese efforts were geared toward matching existing technology and operating models.  Japanese motorcycles remained crude copies of foreign motorcycles till the 1930's, at which time their engineering had advanced to western standards.

Secondly, all types of motorcycles were copies of American, British, or other European brands of motorcycles (the non-British motorcycles were predominantly German).  The Harley Davidson model J was first sold in Japan in the 1920's, and then manufactured by contract from 1924 till around 1937.  It was then copied without a contract till 1958.   Several companies manufactured these bikes including Muraya in 1924, Sankyo in 1933, Meguro in the 1930's, and ending with Rikuo until 1958.  I have read several different time lines for the Japanese Harley Davidson, but suffice is to say, that the bikes were copied by different manufacturers throughout the 30+ years that the motorcycle was manufactured in Japan.  Toward the end of its tenure, many changes were made to make it more usable for Japanese motorcyclists.  This HD copy was a favorite for police, governmental, and military use in Japan before WWII. Apart from the Japanese Harley clone, British brands such as BSA, Ariel, and Triumph were commonly the foundation for motorcycles in Japan before WWII.  The Japanese builders continued to copy western designs even after WWII.  However by the early 1960's, their technology was advancing beyond the US and British standards of practice.

Thirdly, because Japan had very limited natural resources along with a limited home market, motorcycle manufacturers were small and few.  The Japanese Harley was certainly an exception. Different numbers have been published, but somewhere around 18,000 Rikuo HD's were reported to have been produced before they stopped building them. The majority of motorcycles operating in Japan were imported.  It should be noted, however, that the numbers of bikes imported was very small compared to western standards.  Importation all but stopped after the Kanto earthquake.  Most people were poor and would have been unable to purchase or operate a car, scooter, or motorcycle.  Noting the three lists of motorcycles above which existed between 1900 and the late 1930's (pre WWII), Ganneau listed 23 names, Pavey lists 10 and Alexander lists 16.   It should be noted that only five of the names can be found on all three lists.   A sixth is found on two lists.  Many companies used multiple names such as Mushashino and Kogyo, Nippon and New Era, and Cabton, Mizubo, and Jidosha.  These lists probably include a mixture of manufacturers which worked closely together, individual parts from different manufacturers used to create a specific motorcycle, and a company with a specific model listed which would appear as two makes (the manufacturer and the model appearing as two brands).  My point is this, in 1913 there were only 1,284 self-propelled machines operating in Japan (motorcycles, scooters, cars, and trucks combined).  By 1922 the number rises to 9,992 and by 1934 there were only 70,481 vehicles registered in Japan (Alexander page 36).  Compared to US registration figures, these numbers are very small.  According to Harry Sucher, in 1912 there were at least 175,000 motorcycles alone registered in the US (p.22).  By the 1920's the number of registered vehicles on the roads rises to the millions in the US, and by 1930, the number is around 27 million registered vehicles.  From 1900 to the 1930's, the US had over 100+ manufacturers. while Japan had somewhere between 10 and 20 builders.  Japan was a small player with a minor market in the field of motorcycle manufacturing during this time period.  By the WWII period, their motorcycle industry was building motorcycles comparable to the west!

Fourthly, as Japan grew closer to the WWII period (after 1930), they became more protectionist in practice.  As the world markets were suffering, tariffs were applied to their own individual markets to protect their own businesses.  Japan did the same.  The problem Japan had was that their population was growing at a pace beyond what their own land could support.  Japan responded by determining that they had to be strong militarily to protect themselves as a nation, and to protect the alliances they had built with a few other nations.  The result was that more money was spent building up the Japanese military, and less went for developing products for the masses.  From 1900 to the 1920's the motorcycle was developed as an attempt to match western technology. From the late 1920's to WWII, the motorcycle was developed for either military use or for general transportation purposes.  The caveat was that as Japan grew more independent as a nation, the motorcycle had to become a self-sustaining entity and independent from the west as well.   Japan wanted to build its own motorcycles, so as to not be dependent on the west.

Finally, most Japanese motorcycles were smaller displacement machines.  Again, the Japanese Harley remains an exception.  Motorized bicycles were common, 175, 250, 350, and 400cc motorcycles were the norm.  Typically the largest would be in the 500cc range.  Unlike the west, Japanese builders appeared to have a closer working relationship with each other than what is the norm in the western hemisphere.  Being in a smaller world and many living in population centers this would be expected.  Larger displacement motorcycles, apart from the Rikuo, did not come till a decade after the war.  Even until the end of the pre WWII period the Japanese motorcycle was considered inferior to those in the west however, a decade after the war this was to drastically change! 

In this next section, I will attempt to condense the best and most current information available about the earliest Japanese motorcycles.  Nearly all this information will come from four primary sources, however, there are various other sources mixed in as well.  There seems to be some contradictory and confusing data however, I will do the best I can to make a linear developmental chart.  The most important observations are these: First, the Japanese were quick to copy others and secondly, they produced machines in very small numbers compared to the west.  Thirdly, they tended to build newly designed machines rather than to continue developing older machines.  Fourthly, the Japanese were much more interdependent than the west.  They tended to work towards national goals rather than to promote individual ambitions.  Fifthly, the Japanese motorcycle industry doesn't really get started till after the 1920's.  From the early 1920's till WWII, the Japanese motorcycle development was on the increase untill the war stopped all production.  A decade after the war Japan was well on its way to being the world's largest producer of motorcycles.  In America during this time period, the automobile begins to far surpass the motorcycle in sales numbers, and after WWII there were only two motorcycle manufacturers left.  Finally, the Japanese motorcycle development was much more interrelated than the same industry in either the US or Europe.  This was primarily because Japan is a smaller country and had fewer resources.  The recessions Japan experienced in the 1920's and the increased government controls placed on businesses during the 1930's stifled the motorcycle industry except as it related to the military or government needs.

As stated before, the first motorcycle appeared in Japan in 1896.  This was a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller imported by Shinsuke Jomonji, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives, who demonstrated the machine in front of the Hibiya Hotel in Tokyo (the motorcycle was destroyed by the great earthquake in 1923?).  In 1901 (Hiko states this occurred in 1903), a Thomas motorcycle and tricycle were imported, and the motorcycle was ridden extensively through Tokyo generating considerable press and social interest.  The first motor vehicle race in Japan was allegedly staged between the two Thomas machines and a Gladiator quadricycle on Nov. 3, 1901. The Thomas is generally considered to be the first production motorcycle manufactured in the US, and its appearance in Japan at this early date is considered remarkable in that most Americans would never see a motorcycle until after 1905 or later.  The first actual motorcycle to be produced in Japan was one built by a man named "N. Shimazu" in 1908 (Ganneau p.9).  It looks much like other 1900-1903 motorcycles built around the world.  It's basically an engine in a bicycle frame.  Mr. Shimazu is to reappear numerous times in early Japanese motorcycle development.  A Wikepedia article titled "early Japanese motorcycles" notes: "In 1908 Narazo Shimazu created his first two-stroke engine, a 400 cc single-cylinder, and used it to propel a bicycle. In 1909 he produced his first four-stroke engine as well as a motorcycle frame to go with it. This is generally thought to be the first motorcycle made in Japan. Shimazu produced more than 20 of his NS motorcycles at Nihon Motorcycle Company (NMC), and later produced more than 700 Arrow Fast motorcycles at Japan Motors Manufacturing."   The Arrow Fast dates from around 1925, and will be discussed later.  Note the drawing below which was the first known Japanese motorcycle dating back to 1908 or 1909.  


(the above illustration provided by 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technologies) 

Next comes a motorcycle built by a Mr. Miyata, a gunsmith.  According to Ganneau (p. 9) his motorcycle was a copy of a 550cc British Triumph imported around 1913.   Called the Asahi, it was primarily used by the police, and the Japanese Prime Minister (p.10).   It was also noted that the factory closed in 1916, so it was a short term project.  Adrian Pavey notes that a 175cc 2-stroke Asahi was also built in 1913, little else is known of this version of the motorcycle (p.2).  Hiko suggests that another bike was built around this same time period (no specific years given) by the Nihon Motorcycle Company.  It was stated to be a 250cc 2-stroke machine.  Little is known of this machine except that it was manufactured in very small numbers, fewer than 100 units.  Starting in the early 1920's there were new motorcycles built in Japan.  In 1921 there was a 150cc motorcycle built by an individual identified as Mr. Watanabe.  This was claimed to be the first overhead valve engine designed and manufactured in Japan.  The engine was later enlarged to 300cc, however no other information is available.  In 1923 a 2-stroke single was built by Musashino Kogyo.  The carburetor and transmission was of European origin (Hiko).  In 1924, the Japanese government passed the "Military Vehicle Subsidy Law" which moved the motorcycle industry from back alley garages to large factories.  This coincides with the Japanese interest in the Harley Davidson motorcycle.  Alfred Rich Child had become an importer of Harley Davidson motorcycles to Japan in 1924.  After around five years of importing Harleys, Child determined that building them in Japan would be a better plan economically.  It was also an idea which Harley liked because the crash of 1929 was adversely hurting their profits.  Harley Davidson sent engineers over to Japan in 1931 to build a factory to build both 45 CI (750cc) and 74 CI (1200cc) motorcycles.   Things went well until the mid 1930's.  As worldwide tensions mounted, Japan was growing more isolationistic.  In 1936 Child sold the assets to his businesses to a Japanese investor and quickly left Japan.  Japan stopped paying Harley Davidson royalties, and made the motorcycle their own (for more information go to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame).  The Japanese Harley continued in production till 1942 at which time an estimated 18,000 had been built.  After the war, they resumed production till 1958, at which time production finally stopped (Wikipedia: Riuko).  The Riuko was primarily used for military and government use; however, some were sold domestically.  I have come across a few different versions of the Riuko story, but what I have noted is generally correct, and is an interesting part of the Japanese motorcycle story. 

We can now go back to the 1924 Arrow Fast motorcycle designed and built by Mr. Shimazu.  According to Hiko, the first Arrow Fast had a 633cc side valve engine with a 3 speed transmission and a reverse.   The next year, a 250cc version was built and sold in the hundreds thus becoming the first mass produced Japanese motorcycle.  Engines were still very poorly made which meant that most motorcycles were imported.  Hiko stated that 80% of all motorcycles were imported because of the low quality of Japanese machines.   During the 1930's two companies came together to build the Cabton motorcycle.  Mizuhmo and Riuko, both found in the above lists of early Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, came together to build a 500cc motorcycle which was alleged to be a copy of an Ariel (Hiko).  Built from around 1934 to WWII, the motorcycles manufactured by this cooperative were copies of English motorcycles.    Another motorcycle dating back to 1930, was one built by Toyo Kogyo, later known as Mazda.  Ganneau notes that only around 30 were made (p.16).  Note the picture below:


                                   (picture provided by Didier Ganneau: book reference below, p. 16)

Pavey notes in his book that the 1934 Cabton motorcycle was a 350 rather than a 500. These minor discrepancies are typical (p.2).  The next motorcycle which was developed was built by Nihon Keijidousha Kougyo.  Like other early Japanese motorcycles, his bike was a low production machine.  Using the initials "NKB," it was a small displacement machine looking much like its European counterparts.  Built around 1937 to 1939, some include an earlier date, the motorcycle was said to have used numerous parts from other companies.  The factory was located in Hiroshima, so was destroyed during WWII (Hiko).  Note the picture below:

 (courtesy of: http://www.hondarenaissance.com/bikes/nkbcastle.htm)


Probably the most significant older Japanese motorcycle manufacturer was Meguro.  "Meguro motorcycles were made by Meguro Manufacturing Co. motorcycle works, founded by Hobuji Murato and a high ranking naval officer Takaji Suzuki in 1937. It is one of the oldest Japanese motorcycle company and became a partner of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd. Named after a district of Tokyo, it had its roots in Murato Iron Works, which was established 1924."   I have seen some references to Meguro's date of origin as early as 1930, and the Kawasaki takeover in 1963 or 1964.  Ganneau gives the final date that Meguro existed as its own company as 1961 (p.192). 

Every book or website I studied which was related to the early Japanese motorcycle included some conflicting information.  I am confident that most of the pertinant information currently available can be reconciled so that the basic lines of development are not radicaally altered.  As time progresses, and as there is greater interest in the early years of Japanese motorcycle industry, I am confident that more studies will be made.  I plan to continue my research as well.

In Adrian Paveys book, "100 years of Japanese Motorcycles," Pavey notes these highlights regarding Japanese motorcycle development:

·        1908 Torao Yamaba bolts the first Japanese motorcycle engine into a bicycle frame

·        1909 Torao Shimazu designs and builds a belt driven 400cc motorcycle

·        1913 Miyata builds a175cc motorcycle under the NMC name

·        1921 the first OHV motorcycle engine built

·        1923 Musashino builds an all Japanese motorcycle

·        1927 Shimazu builds a 250cc motorcycle engine only

·        1933 Miyata resumes production of the 2-stroke Asahi motorcycle

·        1935 Riuko builds the Japanese Harley Davidson motorcycle

·        1937 Meguro introduces it's first motorcycle with  a 500cc motor

·        1940 Japanese motorcycle production goes over 3000 units per year, an all time high

Although simple and somewhat incomplete, this outline gives us a valuable Japanese motorcycle development timeline.  Probably the best history is provided by Jeffrey Alexander in his book, Japan's Motorcycle Wars.  The pre WWII period was a time when the vast majority of vehicles were built for utilitarian purposes rather than for sport.   Japan was a country which had more times of economic struggle than times of having a booming economy.  

In conclusion, Japan essentially copied the motorcycles of other countries until the WWII period.  After the 1960's  they became significant motorcycle design innivators.  Earlier in this paper I referred to three stages of Japanese motorcycle development.  The first stage went from around 1900 to around 1907.  In this stage, the few motorcycles that were made were copies of foreign bikes built in back alley garages by relatively unskilled, mechanically oriented artisans.  They were poorly made and were unreliable.  The next stage goes to around 1916.  In this period, most motorcycles were imported but a few Japanese manufacturers did begin to emerge.  Japanese motorcycles were still considered to be unmarketable outside Japan and remained unreliable.  The final stage goes to the WWII period.  In an effort to become independent from the west and because of the growth of the military,  the Japanese government began to invest money in the transportation industry which included the motorcycle sector.  Motorcycles were still copies of western machines, but because of larger amounts of money being available, the motorcycle saw significant engineering and manufacturing improvements.  Production numbers remained low compared to the west, but the foundation was being set for future growth.  It has been the growth of the industry after WWII that has been astonishing.   Pictured below is a late 1950's 500cc Japanese Hosk: 


                  (picture provided from Ganneau's book "A Century of Japanese Motorcycles"p.37)

The Hosk, built by Yamarin, looks much like a British big single.  Still a copy, but it looks much cleaner, more modern, and has the appearance of being well engineered.   The Hosk was never sold  outside Japan, but shows the progress made after the war (Ganneau p.26-37).


Japan's real problem has been access to natural resources and foreign markets.  Once these needs improved, Japan's industries, including the motorcycle industry, rapidly forged ahead.  The post WWII period has been refered to as the Japanese "Economic Miracle."  Directly after the war, Japan struggled to rebuild their industrial base.  Companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Nippon, Panasonic, Toshiba, Kawasaki Heavy Industries (the Kawasaki motorcycle division is dwarfed by the companies other interests) are now some of the largest in the world.  A much longer list could easily be made!  Like the big four Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, and Kawasaki, Japan has become a world leader known for performance, reliability, quality, innovation, and highest sales volumes around the world.  From inferior products copied from the designs of others, to some of the best motorcycles currently made in the world, the early history of the Japanese motorcycle industry is an interesting story worth reading.  The final picture will be of the 2015 Kawasaki H2r  sport bike, claiming to produce around 300 real horse power.  I am sure that I read in an article that a sample bike dyno tested at 329 hp.  From the 1908 NS to the 2015 H2, there is no greater show of engineering development!


                                                                 (internet publicity picture)


Mark Bayer  Ed.D.  8-11-2015



(I)   Andressen, Curtis.  A Short History Of Japan.  Allen & Unwin.  2002

ISBN: 1-86508-516-2


(II)  Alexander, Jeffrey W.  Japan's Motorcycle Wars.  University of Hawaii Press, ISBN: 

Honolulu, 2008   ISBN:  978-0-8248-3328-2