By on October 4, 2011


Yesterday brought you news of the tepid Japanese car market that has been down 26 percent for the year. Commenter Alex Nigro DEMANDED the answer to “Are Japanese people still not interested in driving?”

The Nikkei [sub] immediately went on the case and reports today that there is one segment in the industry that is booming: Bicycles. Writes the Nikkei:

“The March 11 earthquake triggered an increase in the number of people who commute to work by bike, and new business are cropping up to accommodate this trend, including high-end park-and-shower services in central Tokyo.”

Two years ago, the Tokyo government started to promote commuting by bicycle. There even was a new word for the two-wheeled salary-man: “Tsuukin-isuto.”  That spurred a mild trend, but not necessarily a craze of Japanese proportions. Did you ever had the pants of an Armani get into the chain?

Then, disaster struck. Millions of Japanese were stranded in downtown Tokyo on March 11 afternoon after the 8.9-magnitude earthquake closed down the sprawling mass transit system. “Suddenly, bikes became a lot more attractive to many people,” says the Nikkei. In a matter of minutes, bicycle stores were empty.

In the aftermath, saving power replaced Buddhism and Shinto as a religion in Japan. Salary-men were urged to ditch their blue suit and tie for “super cool biz” (short sleeves and open collars). Thermostats of the A/C were set to barely bearable, the nation perspired for a noble cause, and the bike race was on.

In short order, bikes turned into big business. Downtown office buildings opened high-tech full-service indoor bicycle parking operations: Racks for the bikes, showers, lockers. The monthly fees are steep: They range from $200 to $300 a month per bike. That approaches Manhattan fees – for a car. But in Tokyo, I get a free shower and don’t have to tip Gonzalez.  I can also buy a bike for the same price.. A really cool bike.

The real craze in Tokyo is not the Roppongi daytraders that switched his Porsche for a Miyata (the bicycle.) The REAL craze in Japan is mamachari.

That’s a Japanese portmanteau of “mama” (mama) and “charinko” (bicycle): It denotes a utility bike with chainguard, fenders, rack, skirt guard, dynamo lights, baskets, and child carriers. It used to be to conveyance of choice of a housewife with two small children and shopping bags. Helmets? Who needs them?

Now, mamachari have been co-opted by the super-cool set. There are weekly mamachari meets, mamachari races, and of course, gobs of mamachari blogs.

If you want to pick up a girl in Tokyo, forget dangling the keys to your 911. The operative phrase is “want to ride side-saddle on my mamachari?”

After a few hundred yards, claim you are out of breath, and  lock the bike to a lamp post in front of a love hotel: “Shower-ga hitsu you desu.” (We need a shower.)


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41 Comments on “TTAC Investigates: Why Japanese Suddenly Hate Cars...”

  • avatar

    Bike fad culture will generally swing back and forth between ultralight, super-minimalistic bikes and big utilitarian bikes. It does the same thing in America. First everyone’s pulling off everything they can, including derailleurs and brakes, then everyone realizes that’s stupid and starts riding a Holland-style city bike, then they realize that these are way too damn heavy and start pulling off parts again…

    • 0 avatar

      I think the people that ride fixies and the people that ride commuter bikes are entirely different sets of people.

      Commuter bike weight has been dropping, anyway. My mostly aluminum commuter bike is probably only a very few lbs heavier than a fairly expensive road bike, which makes no real difference in the grand scheme of things.

      Adjusting MY weight would be far more significant than spending an extra couple thousand bucks on a bike.

      Commuters ought to be using bikes with electric motors, anyway. A good motor, regenerative braking, lightweight battery, disc brakes, and nice proportional controls on a bike that is actually a good bike (so it’s not painful to use if you get caught out with a dead battery), would make for a great commuter bike and the electric energy to provide assist for a commute of ten or even twenty miles would be nearly insignificant. The motor provides the assist to get up hills conveniently with your shopping and/or child and ensures that you won’t get ridiculously sweaty on the ride.

      • 0 avatar

        Kixstart – you have to be young to ride a fixed gear bike on a long commute. Fixies are hard on your knees, especially on a hilly commute.

        My 8 speed internal hub, aluminum frame commuter is pretty heavy. At 60, I should be a candidate foran electric motor assist, but those rigs are significantly heavier than what I ride now. The are a few electric hybrid bikes around here and they do zip past me on the hills.

        Aristurtle – I have a 40 year old Reynolds frame, British ten speed as a back up. It still has the old Cramp and Go Slow – Record Grupo that came with it.

        The commuter bike with its 700/38 tires and stretched frame geometry rides like a tractor by comparison – but you don’t have to thread the needle between pot holes, bumps and cracks in the road.

  • avatar

    I attended university in Friesland and ended up living on a mamachari – Frieslandische style. It was an industrial strength bike made in the Netherlands. The Universities there have overflowing and crowded bike lots, and traffic jams during rush hour means being surrounded by cyclists, not automobiles.

    While the mamachari, the balloon-tire, Fahrrad, and fiets are not sporty in appearance, you simply cannot beat what it is they can do with a mountain bike or typical American bike. US bikes just cannot take the daily beatings metered out in these urban environments.

    It is cute that the Japanese shower after their commute, because that is not typical where I lived. Casual business appearance, and less-than-fresh body scents are nearly completely ignored there. Perhaps it is the colder climate in Friesland, but commuting by bicycle usually doesn’t produce copious amounts of sweat as in Tokyo.

    I loved my “Dutch Monster” bike. It reminded me of my good horses when I lived in Colorado and Kansas. It was a dependable travel companion that allowed me to explore and escape around the Jadebusen and Waddenmeer National Parks as well as the Frisian Islands and the Aa, and Dollard. And like my fellow Friesland dwellers, I usually smelled pretty rank until we stripped off and went into the sea to wash off. Nice life, actually!

    • 0 avatar

      I had a great time cycling through Friesland with my wife and daughter a few years ago. I’d love to add a Dutch city bike to my stable, but it’s too crowded as it is.

    • 0 avatar

      I can’t believe that Dutch roads are any worse than those in Detroit and its suburbs. I’ve ridden a Litespeed Catalyst for more than a decade, putting over 30,000 miles on it. It’s a titanium frame road bike and I have a rare Rock Shox Ruby road racing front fork. Other than flats and the occasional broken spoke, it’s easily taken the beating of riding in an urban environment.

      • 0 avatar

        Cool to hear that there’s another Catalyst out there. I’ve broken 3 carbon forks in ‘altercations’ with cars over the past 14 years of riding and racing, but the frame is still as straight as it was brand new. Gotta love Ti!

      • 0 avatar

        I tend to agree that a well-built (read: not bought at wal-mart) bike in America is extremely durable assuming you don’t weigh over 200 lbs and thrash it through jumps.

        I have thousands of miles on my stable of bikes which I ride through everything from off-road to contruction to stairs (and a couple car accidents), they are all still going strong with far less maintenance than even the most reliable of cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Tokyo is hyper humid in the summer, and Japanese are famously fastidious about personal hygiene. Bathing is almost ritualistic. Showers are a must.

  • avatar

    I had a mamachari as well as a mountain bike for the city. I put bikes at three subway stations, the most common ones I used. The parking for bikes is not free, it’s actually pretty expensive, and they will ticket for it.
    I could get across town faster on bike than by car, and cheaper than the subway.
    I liked bike riding in the Tokyo area, I practically saw every major street and a lot of minor ones.

  • avatar

    I have a nice commuter bike I bought because it was so comfortable to ride for long distances and worked great on gravel/dirt rail trails and paved trails.

    I use to ride a lot more. When I spend some time in DC during college I found a bicycle to be the fastest and easiest way to get around the city. If I did live in a city I wouldn’t have it any other way, but the city life just isn’t for me, and I live out in the country side, 25miles from work, so of course I use a car.

    I just do what makes sense. In a large urban area car parking is rare, or very expensive. The roads are clogged. The public transport system is also expensive, crowded, and very inefficient time-wise. It would be nice to be able to commute by bicycle, but it’s even nicer to have a 1-1/2 acre of land, a ton of garage space, and few neighbors.

  • avatar

    Bertel you didn’t even get into the luxury “mamachari” with oven-mitt handwarmers, built-in umbrella holders, and captive energy regenerative braking to be unleashed on the next incline!

    Put too many groceries in that front basket and you really mess up your handling though. I remember riding with a couple bags in the basket and one hanging off each handlebar. Felt a bit like trying to steer a car with your knees (not that I’ve tried cough cough).

    …And to the conversation above about bike commuting in the U.S., I commute on a fixie. I see it as the bike equivalent to the light-weight and infinitely tossable Lotus. Lucky for me I’ve got nothing but low traffic neighborhood streets and empty bike paths between my home and workplace. I do take the regular road bike out for the country road joyrides though.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh and I do have a front brake. Let’s me ride faster because I can stop faster.

    • 0 avatar

      ringomon …

      cough cough me neither.

      We just got a commuter bike, making it our fourth (2 mountain bikes and a road bike are the others) because we also just got a baby trailer. My brave brave babymama is planning to use a bike as her primary transportation (even in Chicago’s nasty winter) and the delicate road bike and uncomfortable mountain bikes are not up to the task. She needed a bike that was somewhat durable and sturdy enough to pull the trailer, but not as heavy or uncomfortable as a mountain bike.

      We will see how this goes. There are actually a fair number of crazy (and thin and probably not as broke as they could be) urbanites around here that ride through the winter.

      Not a chance in hell I would do that, but i have the utmost respect for those who do.

  • avatar

    I’ve got a pretty decent collection of bikes including a good city bike but speaking as a dedicated year round (down to -35 degrees in January) there is no way in hell that a dutch city bike would take the punishment that my “American” mountain bike can.

    Not saying the Dutch bikes are no good. I checked out a Batavus at a store and was impressed and would like to have one. But I’m pretty sure a few hard 2 foot drops or a nasty wheel-destroying winter of Canadian potholes and slush all of which are a part of my commute would end the Dutch Milf magnet.

  • avatar

    (in the video) Please tell me that isn’t a Pikachu bike helmet.

  • avatar

    My wife and I bought Trek Allants this summer equipped with racks, fenders, and baskets. I don’t commute on it (5 miles away, 55mph roads), but I do run a large portion of my errands in town on it. I’ll never get a payoff in gas savings, even from my 22mpg SUV, but I enjoy it. My other 3 bikes are rather racy (2 MTB, 1 road), so it is nice to hop onto something with an upright riding position and squishy saddle and go for a short ride.

  • avatar

    I used to commute on a fixed gear for 5 years… but haven’t often since my commute changed. Usually, though, you’re correct in that generalization… lots of commuters prize things like fenders, racks, panniers, lights, and once you add those things you might as well put on gears and a hub motor. The hipster fashions change so quickly… always looking for the next “white belt”.

    The thing is, the infrastructure in North America honestly sucks for bicycling in general. To ride in the road takes trust that the motorists you share the lane with will see you and respect you. I don’t, which works OK in cities, where they aren’t going anywhere in a hurry anyway, but breaks down when the speed limits creep up past 35mph, and motorists are willing to drive 55.

    The Bikeshare companies who rent mamachari seem to be doing well around here though, and are expanding into outlying areas (cities in their own right, inside the beltway)

    • 0 avatar

      I built a fixie out of an old Peugot a few years ago. It’s stupid light and fast, but I find 9 time out of 10 I commute on my old mountain bike with fenders and a rack. Fixies are fun, but not the best choice for commuting in my experience. YMMV, of course.

  • avatar

    Thirty five years ago, when I was commuting on a bike in West La (down Century Blvd in a sea of cars), I felt quite sure that bikes would be the next cool thing, and an important part of the solution to deal with the issues of energy shortages, etc. in the future.

    And I wondered to myself: the Chinese (back then) are/were all commuting to work on bikes, by the tens of millions. Are they going to be smart enough to realize they are ahead of the game already? Or were they going to make the idiotic mistake of imitating the West, getting rid of their bikes and bike lanes, building roads and cars, so that eventually they would realize the folly of all of that? Hmmm.
    When will the Chinese take up bikes, again?

    • 0 avatar

      Abeit an un-cool option with regards to social status – you’d think that China would be the perfect place to an electric hybrid bicycle.

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking the same as you 35 years ago, and commuting on a ~28 lb Peugeot ten speed that I still have, although it languishes. I don’t ride much anymore (I run for exercise) but when I do, I use my bikeE recumbent.

      A couple of years ago I wrote an article about policies for mitigating greenhouse emissions (, and experts who studied these issues told me that people in undeveloped countries want cars. It’s plenty obvious from stuff I’ve read in TTAC.

      • 0 avatar

        The really ironic thing is that, as the infrastructure becomes more ‘automobiled’ to satisfy this want, the present ‘want’ will quickly become a future need (with all the accompanying headaches, problems and “idiotic mistakes” alluded to in Paul’s post).

    • 0 avatar

      Since the memory of Chinese bike-centric commuting culture is within their memory, they must have decided the benefits of car ownership outweigh the costs.

      Much like deciding that hassles of wardrobe variety outweigh the convenience of owning a few drab gray Mao suits.

      Simplicity is not so sweet when it is monotony.

      • 0 avatar

        “Simplicity is not so sweet when it is monotony.”

        Complexity is not much better if it means being stuck in yet another slow line of smog-inducing traffic in a seemingly endless series of life destroying, soul sucking commutes.

    • 0 avatar

      Functional urban planning is more about high densities, limiting sprawl, and funding for good public transit. Outside of small urban areas, bikes rarely if ever achieve more than a single digit percentage modal use.

      A lot of postmodern urban theory revolves around bikes. Unfortunately postmodern urban theory is also funded by the real estate industry, and the veneration for bicycles (despite contrasting empirical evidence) is held up as paramount. Bikes do have their place, but aren’t some panacea. But it’s still the real estate industry’s chosen transport mode, the “let them eat cake” argument.

      Ironically China’s urban areas are legislated to have very high densities, and are building comprehensive public transit networks. Contrast this to the US, where we talk about bicycles, but continue to expand our urban areas and make them even more car-dependent.

  • avatar

    Had all sorts of bikes during my spell in Japan. Lived on them basically.
    The source would be the campus bike lots, where there were dozens of bikes, that were left behind by graduates. Just show up there before the cleaning crew arrives and pick up the one tagged for removal. Went through 8 or 10 of them in 6 months.
    Mamachari are awesomely comfortable and convenient. But boring. So I ended up cannibalazing several junked bikes into one 18-speed, 2 dynamo, 4 lights, 2 grocery bags monster. Passed it down to a compatriot kohai wen I left.

  • avatar

    Correction: “MamaChari” is a portmanteau of the words “Mama” and “Charinko”, NOT “Chariot”:

    While energy conservation has become a hot topic after the March 11th disasters, a large reason for the increased usage of bicycles is because during the last twenty years of economic stagnation, Japanese quantitative easing policies and the massive public works projects that have resulted from it have invested massively in public transportation and expanding bicycle friendly commuting.

    Some say that Japanese infrastructure is overbuilt with too many bridges to nowhere. Giken for instance has gotten tens of millions from the Japanese government to build their underground bicycle parking:

    Obviously it hurts the Japanese automakers. As bicycle friendly Japan, which has omnipresent public transportation, high car taxes and parking, and bicycle friendly infrastructure finds yet another reason not to own a car.

  • avatar

    Correction: “MamaChari” is a portmanteau of the words “Mama” and “Charinko”, NOT “Chariot”

    Sono tori! My cultural adviser confirms.

  • avatar

    Another lingo thing for Bertel, his Q.A, and possibly the Italian Adventure: Tsuukin-isuto –> “Zookinist” = Cyclist?

    Just a WAG; just curious.

  • avatar

    Most Japanese don’t lock their bicycles. Period.

  • avatar
    a cat named scruffy

    I hope this doesn’t finish off our small hopes for NXS, RX-8 or Supra replacements.
    The hopes were kind of thin as it was.

  • avatar

    bikers above cite collisions with cars, then talk about getting a rig to take their kids on with them…

  • avatar

    you want me to do what now?

  • avatar

    do what now?

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