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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Early History Of The Bicycle In Japan

So… since this is a blog about Japan… let's write about Japan… specifically something about their culture… like bicycles. A religion.

When I moved from Toronto to Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan in July of 1990, the one thing that surprised the hell out of me was the fact that there were a lot of bicycles being ridden - and not just by the kids under the age of 16, but by adults… adults who could legally be driving a car instead!

It does snow in Japan, right? Yes… it does - depending on where you live, of course. What did people do when it snowed? They walked.

Japan was long a walking society in the Edo-jidai (Edo era - the days when Japan was still a closed society) of the 1600s - 1868.

Sure, some might have ridden a horse, but most would have been lucky enough to ride a rickshaw or an ox-cart.

But it wasn't until Commodore Perry came to visit Japan that foreign inventions made their way into the country… things like the bicycle.

There are no records showing when exactly the first instance of a bicycle was used in Japan… in fact, it seems quite logical that the tricycle was more in use in Japan than the bicycle.

One wheel in front and two in the back… it was an easier and cheaper way of moving gods from point A to point B than using an ox.

There are a few drawings and ukiyo-e prints which show the tricycle being used.

Back in the 1860s, tricycles were popular in Yokohama (where the foreigners could legally dock their ships for trade with Japan). I suppose it is possible that one of the foreign ships arriving in Japan contained a tricycle and or many bicycles that intrigued the Japanese… so much so that they would purchase them from the traveling merchants.
"A Jirinsha" tricycle,a drawing from a 'Yokohama open port experience magazine', 1865 .
But… by the 1870s, bicycles had become so popular with the people of Osaka-ken (Osaka Prefecture), that traffic laws were installed to include them. But, while popular in Osaka and perhaps Yokohama, the bicycle was still very much a curiosity that would elicit stares just as I would riding my giant-sized standard bicycle down the streets of Ohtawara that first month there.

"Hora! Gaijin-da! (Look! A foreigner!)" they would scream.
"Konichiwaaaaaaaaaaaa" I would reply as I sped past them on my bicycle.

Now… when I talk about bicycles in the 1870s through 1890s, I'm talking about bicycles that look like the Penny-Farthings… the huge front wheel and the much smaller back wheel.

These bikes are called the 'Ordinary' throughout most of the world, but are perhaps best known in Great Britain commonwealth countries as the 'penny-farthing' where the large and small coins - the large penny and small farthing - were well known.

Here… let me draw you a picture with some of my coins:
Despite my lack of artistic ability as a doodler, kindda cool, huh… but where's the love for Japan?

Well… it was a foreigner in Japan who made the bicycle quite the technological darling of Japan.

Meet Thomas Stevens (December 24, 1854 - January 24, 1935) of Hertfordshire, England, who was the first person to circle the globe by bicycle - a Penny-Farthing, in this case, since he's British.
Thomas Stevens
He traveled from April 1884 to December 1886 - none of that 80-days stuff… it took him two years and nine months.

Despite his Britishness, Stevens moved to the US - Denver and then San Francisco - in 1871, where he learned to ride the Ordinary bicycle.

In 1884 he purchased a black-enameled Columbia 50-inch 'Standard' bike with nickel-plated wheels, built by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago. He packed his handlebar bag with socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as tent and bedroll, and a pocket revolver and left San Francisco at 8AM on April 22.
The actual Thomas Steven's Pope Ordinary bicycle.
Skipping ahead, once in the rioting areas of China, he took a steamship to Japan and says he was impressed by the calm of the country.

According to the The Jijishinpou newspaper of December 4, 1886, Stevens arrived in Nagasaki by the Yokohama-maru ship steamship. On his bicycle, he left the city of Nagasaki and rode to Yokohama on December 17, 1886—the end of his global trek. Stevens says that not counting the boat trips, he had actually wheeled about 13,500 miles.
What happened to the bicycle? It had been preserved by the Pope Manufacturing Company… until it decided that being patriotic triumphed global unity, and donated the bike to the scrap drives to propel the war effort.

Damn Pope.

By the way… Stevens had also joined in the hunt in East Africa for noted explorer Henry Morton Stanley, but didn't find him.

Anyhow… the Stevens bicycle ride across the country was a news sensation! People lined up to see him ride past and wanted to read about his journey.

It is suspected that Steven's travels through Japan made the bicycle as something the Japanese wanted to have for themselves.

With demand came the supply.

I'll get to it in a second, but just note that the Japanese began manufacturing bicycles at around this time in larger and larger numbers.

The Ordinary bicycles in Japan were usually manufactured by Japanese blacksmiths - probably after seeing a European or American version.

These Ordinary bicycles were constructed in Japan between 1885 and 1895, before the more common bicycle we know and love today was introduced.

Because local blacksmiths were the manufacturers, Ordinaries could have differing size variations depending on where exactly it was built and by whom.
An 1897 Japanese built Ordinary (Dharma) bicycle - manufactured by a blacksmith.
But, thanks to the efforts of such Japanese bicycle historians as Ohtsu Yukio (surname first), we have an idea of how large an Ordinary might be as built by Kunimoto in 1891 of Nagashima-shi (Nagashima City) in Shiga-ken.
  • Front wheel: 1.05 meters
  • Back wheel: 0.48 meters
  • Saddle height: 1.15 meters
  • The wheel frame is constructed of wood
  • The tire is an iron belt.
  • It also had a front mudguard.
In Japan, The Ordinary bicycle had a much more colloquial name: the Dharma.

Who or what is the Dharma besides being the very, very, very hot Jenna Elfman in a decent comedic television program (Dharma and Greg). You can tell I have a thing for Jenna.

In Buddhist culture, the Dharma was a monk born in India (he was a gaijin!!!) and traveled to China at around 470AD. Studying at the Mount Songshan Shaoling temple, he helped found the Chinese zen Buddhist philosophy.

Anyhow, in Japan, the Dharma (Bodhidharma) is a sign of good luck… and because they saw these Ordinary bicycles to resemble the meditating form of the Bodhidharma, they called the bikes Dharma's.

Got it? Good.

Now… because of the passing resemblance to Bodhidharma (according to Buddhist lore and later paintings of a man long dead before being reconstructed from 'memory'), since the Bodhidharma was lucky, so too must the Dharma bicycle be lucky - by association, of course.

It is thought that because was lucky, it was a way for the Japanese people to be one step closer to their Buddhist teachings, and it is a reason why bicycles became a phenomenon in Japan.

I would bet it's for the same reason in China, but for them, after the cultural revolution, it became a utilitarian thing, rather than a religious symbol of luck.

Hey… don't knock the bicycle as a religious symbol. Despite being a Roman Catholic myself, have you seen the crucifix as a Christian symbol? We love our savior so much we made his suffering of being named to a cross our symbol of hope and happiness.
In 1893, the Morimura brothers cycled the Tokaido highway on these American-made Ordinary bicycles.
Anyhow… it was between the 1885-1895 era that Japan became globally-respected for its manufacturing skills… or perhaps it's better to say it became well respected for its ability to manufacture a decent Ordinary at an affordable price.

According to an 1895 Chicago Tribune article: "Japan seems to be the ideal land in which to purchase bicycles…good wheels are sold over there, and at wholesale at $12 each."

Doesn't $12 sound pretty steep for a bike in 1895? Well, consider that in the US, you could buy an Ordinary for $50.

That's all well and good, but what is that in today's dollars?

That $12 Dharma bicycle would be $310. Yowza. That mans that an American-made Ordinary might set you back the equivalent of $1,300.

Was it American greed or Japanese ignorance of prices? Well, Japan still had a manufacturing base that had a low earning workforce. Cheap labor and an uncanny ability to mimic Western inventions meant that Japanese bicycles were a popular product around the world.

That's all for now... if I feel like it in a few days, we'll get to the standard bicycle in Japan.

And... watch out for Japanese drivers! No matter what you think as a cyclist, even if you have the right of way, just pretend you don't. You don't want to be hit twice by cars like I was.

Andrew Joseph
The image at the very top is from the June 10, 1893 issue of Fuzoku Gaho a monthly Meiji era  magazine, and shows the members of the Japanese Imperial Army performing exercises in Utsunomiya-shi, the capital of Tochigi-ken in 1892 (which I visited 100 years later).


  1. boleh tanya sumber buku tentang sejarah sepeda di jepang ..terima kasih, mohon bantuannya :)

    1. Ha-ha! :) Yang buku sejarah yang ANDA artinya? Google Translate.