As you’ve probably heard by now, one of the first pieces of debris from the Japanese tsunami to wash up in British Columbia was a Harley Davidson motorcycle. After a little detective work, the bike, which floated across the Pacific in the back of a moving van, was traced back to its owner in the Miyaga Prefecture.
In the most recent development of this story, Harley Davidson has announced that they will restore the bike to its original condition before sending it back to its owner in Japan.
While this incident is a reminder that we still have a long way to go before we see a complete recovery in Japan, it is also interesting to us bike enthusiasts as a glimpse of the Harley Davidson presence in Japan. With such a strong line up of Japanese bikes – bikes that once gave Harley a run for their money here in the states - how is it that Harleys have become so popular in Japan?
The History of Harley-Davidson in Japan
Harleys are in fact not at all new to Japan. The first Harley-Davidson motorcycles were imported into Japan in 1913 and have remained quite popular there ever since. However, they weren’t always produced under the Harley name. At first, there were many Japanese knock-offs floating around, but in 1929, Harley began producing a licensed copy under the name Rikuo, a division of Sankyo. Then in 1931, the Dabittoson Harley Motorcycle Co was established and began domestic production of the Harley-Davidson Road King: a 1200 cc side-valve V-twin that put out 28 horsepower.
Alfred Rich Child
One man in particular was responsible for establishing Harley-Davidson in Japan. In the mid-1930s, Alfred Rich Child brought over the necessary tooling and personnel to begin production on the Japanese flatheads.
Then in 1936, after breaking with Sankyo, Child began importing Harleys straight from Milwaukee and selling them from his new shop, Nichiman Harley Davidson in Tokyo. As WWII approached, hostility towards Americans increased, forcing Child to return to the US where he went on to distribute BSA motorcycles .
It wasn’t until 1989 that Harley Davidson Japan was established. Since then, dealerships and outlets have spread throughout the country, as sales in bikes steadily, particularly the Sportster, increase. Just as important as the actual sales of bikes is the promotion of the Harley lifestyle.
HOG (Harley Owner Groups) has a strong presence throughout Japan and holds a number of events and rallies throughout the year. It is the lifestyle that comes with a Harley that has helped the brand grow and compete with the Japanese brands of motorcycles.
Bikers In Japan
The appeal of the Harley lifestyle in Japan is that it promotes independence in a society that values order and conformity. Just the sheer size of a Harley compared to smaller domestic bikes is enough to shake things up. But it’s not the young that make up the majority of Harley riders in Japan.
Due to their hefty price tags, the average Harley owner is in their forties. In Japan, the Harley lifestyle, while always about independence, is also focused on leisure, and thus it is the older and more affluent population that is the primary customer.
Japanese Custom Motorcycles
All this doesn’t imply that Japan is without a mean custom Harley scene. Some of the best custom work in the world is coming out of Japanese shops right now. Shops such as Nice Motorcycles and Zero Chopper Spirit are continuously churning out stunning customs with a stripped down Japanese aesthetic.
With the recovery of the Harley in British Columbia and Harley-Davidson’s promise to restore the bike, we’re glad to know that there will be one more hog back on the road after last year’s tragedy.