Bicycles

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Masayuki Hasebe

    Main guest

    Following a career in bicycle road racing, Hasebe worked for a major manufacturer developing and designing bicycle components. In his current role at the Bicycle Museum Center in Sakai, Osaka, he works to spread the appeal of bikes.

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June 30, 2016

Bicycles

*You will leave the NHK website.

At first glance, Japan’s mountainous terrain and the narrow, crowded streets of its inner cities may make the country seem like an unlikely haven for cyclists.

And yet even without the broad, flat vistas, and widespread cycling lanes of recognized pedal paradises like Denmark and the Netherlands, bicycles occupy a key place in the Japanese lifestyle.

According to the National Police Agency, in 2013 there were over 71.5 million bicycles on the road in Japan -- almost 1.5 for every household. Bicycles are quite commonly used for at least part of a trip to and from school or work.

And while Japan-made components (particularly from the city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, which, as we discovered in Bladed Tools, the third edition in this series of Japanology Plus, has a long history of metalworking) are key to many of the bicycles that grace the world’s most prestigious competitive cycling events, the real icon of Japanese bicycles is a steed that evolved to meet more prosaic needs. 

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The iconic mama-chari features a basket and a “step-through” frame designed for easy mounting.

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Heavy, motorized power-assist models have smaller wheels to enable the rider to stand when stationary.

As its name suggests, the mama-chari -- a term combining “mama,” for, well, “mama,” and “chari,” a slang term for bicycle -- was originally developed as transport for mothers out on the school run or a trip to the shops.

The most immediately identifiable feature is a front-mounted basket in which to stow your shopping, while in many cases the sturdy frame with its kick-down rear stand is also fitted with a child seat, sometimes one each at front and back.

The frame is also shaped to allow riders to mount by stepping “through,” rather than over, preserving the modesty of those wearing skirts or dresses. A rear fender, meanwhile, keeps flowing garments from becoming tangled in the spokes. In the 1990s, further support for mothers carrying heavy loads up steep slopes came in the form of power-assist models with a motor to augment pedal power.

But despite, or perhaps because of, its unglamorous, clunky charms, along with supreme functionality and low price, since its debut in the 1960s the mama-chari has gone on to become the chariot of choice for many people of all demographics: from high-school students to salarymen. It now accounts for an estimated 80% of all bicycles on the road in Japan.

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Mama-chari races attract many amateur riders. 

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Matt gets ready to race. 

There are even competitive mama-chari track meets held around Japan, giving riders of all ages and abilities (including, in this edition, Japanology Plus reporter Matt Alt) the chance to go hell-for-leather around tracks that might otherwise host kart races.

Japan also has a more serious competitive cycling heritage, with four Olympic medals to date for the various cycling disciplines, including keirin, a high-speed track race that originated as a sport in postwar Japan, and made its Olympic debut in 2000.

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Illegal bicycle parking is a major issue in urban areas.

The popularity of bicycles is, however, not without problems. Although dedicated bicycle-parking areas are available around many suburban train stations, the lack of official sites in some more crowded inner-city areas often leads to mass illegal parking. The area around Tokyo Station reportedly sees over 200 bikes deposited illegally each day.

More serious is the number of accidents involving cyclists. Although these figures are also on the decrease, 2015 saw 98,700 accidents caused by cyclists, including 577 fatalities. 

While riders distracted by mobile phones, steering one-handed while using an umbrella, or listening to music are undeniably common, the narrow, convoluted streets of Japan’s inner cities are also a major factor. On roads that often lack even a separate area for pedestrians, it can become a free-for all, with cars, cyclists and pedestrians competing for space.

As Peter Barakan finds out, this can be a rather hair-raising experience for cyclist and pedestrian alike, and it is no surprise that accidents often result. The last few years have seen the police start to enforce cycling regulations more strictly.

Japan has nevertheless been described by some aficionados as “the world’s third-greatest cycling nation.” And it’s only set to get better.

Bicycle rental schemes in tourist hotspots such as Kyoto offer a great way to take in the sights, while scenic routes and organized cyclothons have been central to regional revitalization around the Seto Inland Sea in western Japan.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, there are plans to make Japan’s streets even more bicycle friendly. And if Japan’s cyclists can pick up a few medals on home turf, even better!

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Cycling lanes are becoming more widespread across Japan. 

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Many of the world’s leading bicycle manufacturers use various precision components manufactured in Japan. 


 

*You will leave the NHK website.