Japan's Motorcycle Wars: An Industry History


This book explores Japan’s twentieth century motorcycle industry, which has been overlooked by Western scholarship almost entirely, and the author draws novel, often surprising conclusions about Japan’s industrial and economic growth. His many subjects include: the introduction of the motorcycle to Japan in the early 1900s; the influence of motor sports on vehicle sales in the 1920s and 1930s; the efforts to police Japan’s chaotic city streets, and; the experiences of manufacturers in Japan’s prescribed wartime production regime. Alexander further examines the industry’s explosive growth in the early 1950s, how private endurance races helped to cull the vast herd of over 200 makers by the 1960s, and the later triumphs of the victors in brutally demanding international races. Importantly, by exploring the industry as a whole, this book reveals that manufacturing in postwar Japan was characterized not by communitarian success, but by brutal competition, misplaced loyalties, broken promises, technical disasters, and outright fraud. The sources show us that for many Japanese entrepreneurs, technology was often too complex and innovation was too difficult, and poor business decisions were therefore made every day – leading to a 95 percent bankruptcy rate across the industry.

Excerpt on technical challenges:

"Despite Japan’s many successes in international markets since the Occupation era, most postwar Japanese manufacturing firms were hardly paragons of technical proficiency. Indeed, the majority of Japan’s postwar motorcycle manufacturers lacked the skills necessary to produce durable, competitive machines even for the domestic market. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, as firms throughout Japan piled into the industry, each encountered the challenges posed by the design, production, or assembly of motorcycle engines, frames, and their requisite electrical components. Those that tackled the difficult job of producing their own pistons, timing chains, and valve assemblies soon discovered that the level of precision required to fabricate such parts and to build reliable engines was much greater than they had anticipated. Throughout the small engine manufacturing community, many companies that understood the importance of adopting key innovations such as the overhead-cam design were hard pressed to actually build one that could survive its initial trials. Some firms suffered design problems so severe that their products were unable to make it even to the end of the assembly line, which idled their plants and forced their inexperienced engineers back to their drawing boards post-haste. When interviewed in 1972, several of these firms’ presidents and chief engineers pointed to the technical sophistication of the Honda Motor Company, which overcame such challenges and placed severe pressure on its competitors to keep pace. Although some of Honda’s rivals were long-time motorcycle makers, others were managed by former (or continuing) makers of office equipment, film projectors, decorative statues, bamboo ladles, and other unrelated commodities. Many of these companies assembled and sold, or even exported, dozens of machines before realizing that their engine designs were substandard. The market had remarkably few barriers to entry."

What People are Saying...

“Reading this book is a revelation and a thrill. It is an excellent example of business history done right and just possibly the tonic the subfield of Japanese business history needs. Alexander’s contribution here is thoroughly original; he gives us a rare look into the experiences of the losers as well as the winners in Japanese business. He will open the eyes of everyone in the field to the significance of the motorcycle industry on Japan's economic and technological development, especially after the Second World War.”

- William Tsutsui, President of Hendrix College and author, Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan

“This book is very much at the cutting edge of current scholarship. Besides demonstrating the role of the Japanese military and empire in the early development of the industry, it illuminates the intense competition among motorbike makers in the first decade and a half after the Second World War. The author’s focus not only on the handful of success stories but also on many of the scores of failures separates it from most other works on Japanese business and economic history, making it all the more valuable."

- Steven Ericson, Dartmouth College and author, The Sound of the Whistle: Railroads and the State in Meiji Japan

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