Japan’s Motorcycle Wars delves deep into the history of the Japanese motorcycle business going well beyond the stories of the now successful big 4 brands everyone seems to know. For all of the impact Japanese motorcycles have had here in the U.S. and around the world, there hasn’t been a scholarly book written about how the business started and grew, until now. Dr. Jeffrey Alexander, a professor of Asian history at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, used translations of interviews with the people directly involved in building the businesses, not only the ones that succeeded, but the many that failed. Other materials have only been available in Japanese, so much of it has been inaccessible to Western readers. Dr. Alexander brings it all together in this in depth study.
Many companies Alexander writes about were new or only vaguely familiar to me, Katayama Industries produced the Olympus motorcycle, Mizuho Motor manufactured the Cabton motorcycle plus Shinmeiwa Industries, Showa Manufacturing and more, all are part of a long history of Japanese motorcycles you’ve most likely heard little about.
One interesting story concerns the Rikuo Motor company. Harley Davidson began exporting motorcycles to Japan in 1917 as a result of a licensing agreement arranged by the Imperial Japanese Army. As the number of motorcycles grew, Harley wanted to make sure sufficient numbers of spare parts were available and a deal was struck with Koto Trading, a subsidiary of the Sankyo company, to import motorcycles, tools and parts. In 1931, one dealership split off and began a manufacturing company to produce parts, except for the engine which they still lacked the capability to do. In 1932, Harley Davidson sold them the production equipment, designs, tools and castings to produce the 1200cc VL engine. In 1933, the entire 1200cc engine manufacturing plant in Milwaukee was disassembled and shipped to Japan as Harley was shifting to the EL engine. By 1935 the motorcycles were produced in Japan and branded Rikuo or “Road King.” The company name was eventually changed to Rikuo and as Japan wanted to become more self sufficient in production and as relations soured when Rikuo refused to license the EL powerplant, the agreement between the companies dissolved and the Rikuo Motor Company was now producing a Japanese domestic version of a Harley Davidson motorcycle which was used by the Army, police and many Japanese government agencies.
Japan’s Motorcycle Wars is no coffee table book, this is a serious bit of work and stories like the one about the Rikuo company are found throughout, but if you are interested in the background of this important segment of Japanese industry or Japanese motorcycle history generally, it’s well worth your time.