Everything I know about motorcycles in Japan is from observation, not participation. What follows is pretty much just off the top of
The first thing I learned is that a motorcycle variously is called an “autobike,” a “motorbike,” a “motorcycle,” or just a “bike.” This lends to confusion if I say “bike” meaning “bicycle” and people say “Huh?” When that happens and I see confusion in my listeners’ eyes I instantly correct myself with “autobike.” That settles it.
In Japan, where the Age of Majority is 20 years, a general driver’s license is available from the age of 18, but a motorcycle licence is available from 16. Teenagers enjoy reporting this to me, like they enjoy reporting the minimum male and female ages for legal marriage. I think they are excited by the knowledge, and maybe they think that by flashing me with some degree of precociousness they add a patina of maturity to themselves.
The next thing I learned about motorcycles here is the confusion of a REAL motorcycle with what Canadians would call a scooter. First there is the position and power of the engine. Scooters always have small rear-mounted engines and rear wheel drive while motorcycles have their engines in the center of the frame, over which the driver straddles, and the bike is chain-driven by a much more powerful motor. Scooters have totally different frames as well. More than once I have met this confusion head on when a Japanese person told me that they drive a motorcycle and then lead me outside to see it and what I found was a modest scooter instead. You’d think I’d learn after the first incident, but no.
There are an awful lot of scooters and motorcycles on the roads here compared to Canada, and many more bicycles, too. But not so many as, say, Vietnam I think. Why so many bikes? And what are they used for? Many of them are used by young people who can’t afford cars or motorcycles, just for getting from Point A to Point B, and sometimes Point C. But the majority are delivery vehicles: postal mail; pizza; tofu; bento lunch boxes; platters of sushi or ramen, etc. You name it and it can be delivered.
Now having said that about scooters, there are many genuine motorcycles here. Companies like Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki dominate the market. One quickly notices that brightly colored sports racing models are the overwhelming favorites here. There are big road cruising bikes, like American Harley-Davidsons, in serious black and chrome colors. A Harley-Davidson from Japan was even washed ashore in British Columbia in May 2012, part of tsunami debris washed out to sea after the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. It subsequently went on display at the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Many years ago I used to work in a girls high school in Minato Ward just around the corner from the Japan Harley-Davidson’s headquarters and showcase store. Who rides the Harleys? Bike aficionados I guess, and American culture wonks. I even saw a chopper once. Twice I have seen Lamborghinis on the streets in my own neighborhood and I have to wonder why? Why would a Lamborghini owner drive it in the city, especially this city? I mean, it’s an open highway car, right? Oh, well. The Lamborghini engine is so highly tuned that it sounds like a wind-up toy, which is what caused me to turn my head. I thought, “What’s that whining sound?”
Many women ride scooters on the streets. But I have to admit that I cannot remember ever seeing a woman riding a motorcycle except as a passenger. I’m sure they’re out there, though. There are women police officers, taxi drivers, truck drivers, construction crane operators, train drivers, and a small number of commercial airline pilots. With the graying of the population, the sharp decline in birth rate, the increasing presence of women in the workforce, and now the overall shrinkage of the gross population the place and role of women in society here - and the scope of their accepted behavior - are changing. They have noticeably changed just in my time here. Women with tattoos; women who smoke; women who marry foreign men; women who refuse to marry at all or to have children; women who travel overseas; women who refuse to wear traditional clothes even for ceremonial occasions. The times they are ... becoming different. Japanese women are so great that I even got me one. (Or, rather, she got me - in the supermarket. But that is another story.)
Vehicles are not parked on the streets overnight here. Not at all. I believe that’s illegal. To own a vehicle one must demonstrate that they have a parking space for it off the road. Car ports rather than garages are the common home extension. Plus there are many small neighborhood parking lots. Many times I have seen an old house demolished and thought, “Oh, good, now they can build a nice modern condominium building here” only to witness another miniature car park installed. I don’t like to see more pavement. They are ugly but necessary. Many commuter train stations feature adjacent bicycle and motorcycle parking.
I also have never seen or heard of illegal, impromptu street racing here, like what features in Vin Diesel movies. However, there are the Bosozoku bike gangs who are infamous for parading slowly in their scooters en masse, with mufflers deliberately removed so they can make the biggest sound imaginable and announce themselves with authority. Or with irritating noise, at least. Bosozoku are teenage gangs loosely affiliated with the yakuza (mafia). Maybe they join the yakuza when they grow up, I don’t know. They are particularly noticeable on Osaka streets. It’s difficult for the police to control them and many times I have seen footage on television of Osaka police cars slowly tracing slow driving Bosozoku gangs as they dangerously weave in and out of traffic down the middle of streets and urban highway in the middle of the night, taunting the police as they go. They look like British football hooligans, and the police chasing them look like Warner Brothers cartoon cops. The Bosozoku, too, look like cartoon gangsters because they are scooter gangs like the Mods in Quadrophenia, not biker gangs as North Americans might imagine Hells Angels. Still, I wouldn’t want to be in bad graces with a Bosozoku. Human teenage males are the most dangerous creatures in our world: large, strong and heavy; recklessly uninhibited; intellectually undeveloped; emotionally immature; sexual predators. And they are allowed to ride motorbikes.
Osaka, Japan’s Second City, is quite different from the capital. It is a grittier industrial city famous for its spicy food, its hard scrabble politicians, its Kansai accented speech, and especially for its sense of humor. Many of the greatest Japanese comedians come from Osaka, where the sense of humor is as different from Tokyo’s as Saturday Night Live is different from Monty Python.
Incidentally, the most famous motorcycle accident in this country happened in August 1994 when the comedian-actor-director Beat Takeshi (known in the West by his real name, Takeshi Kitano) crashed his motor scooter in Tokyo late at night while not wearing the mandatory safety helmet. The incident left his face permanently paralyzed on one side.