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What an industrial bicycle has to say

Yoichi Sato
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

The vehicle that caught my eye and settled in

It was last autumn that I got interested in that vehicle. One day, I suddenly developed a symptom that was beyond my receptive threshold, just like hay fever.

The steel vehicle I saw on Yasukuni-dori at Jimbocho—a town lined with many used-book shops—was standing at its owner's shop just like a pet dog. The vehicle had a robust black body, and it tilted its head slightly, as if it were waiting to be called to transport goods. In my eyes, this was no mere tool.

A curious thing happened once I saw that vehicle in this light: I have seen it everywhere around Kanda and become more and more interested in it. I wondered why I had not noticed it until that day, though I had walked along the Yasukuni-dori dozens or even hundreds of times. At that moment on that day, something changed in my eyes. It was as if a sensor for detecting steel creatures were built into the back of my eyes.

That vehicle is typically called an industrial bicycle, which is a bicycle intended for transportation with a rugged frame, straight top bar, wide carrier, and strong kickstand.

Illustration of the remarkable points of an industrial bicycle

From old pictures or movies, you can easily find that an industrial bicycle used to be in every scene on the roadside. You would often see an industrial bicycle speed accidentally behind people chatting, be parked near a marketplace, or run together with cars along a main street—its rider skillfully holding Soba trays with one hand. Because of these images, the industrial bicycle is called a retro-Showa period item.

What I noticed on the Yasukuni-dori, however, was not an antique retro bicycle, but still an active bicycle waiting to be called on in front of the store, in spite of its age.

Just at that time, I was asked to write an essay for a column about the Kanda area. I decided to write about the industrial bicycle, which meant first of all, I needed to investigate.

Originally this was not my solo project, but a joint one with a friend who began to show the same symptom almost at the same time. She is a writer who has ample knowledge of the Kanda area, with whom I had worked to publish a book about this area before. Since the day we received the offer, we have tackled industrial bicycles as fellows with the same symptom and the same spirit.

I went over the Kanda area with a fine-tooth comb. If I encountered an industrial bicycle, I took its picture, and asked the owner of the bicycle at the store to tell a story about the relationship between the bicycle and his or her business. In such a way, I counted the number of industrial bicycles, which amounted to 220—all of them on active duty. I submitted an introductory article about industrial bicycles while plotting investigation results on the map.

Once the industrial bicycle sensor was built in me, I always eagerly searched for my next target. As a matter of fact, wherever I go, my sensor automatically operates and detects the appearance and feel of a bicycle. As a result, the industrial bicycle settles into my eyes.

Town vehicles, town creatures

The results obtained from my industrial bicycle sensor indicate that there are some areas that industrial bicycles inhabit locally. These are the Kanda area, Tsukiji Market and environs, Kappabashi Dogu Street, and the wholesaler district in Bakurocho and Yokoyamacho—which I call the Four Holy Lands.

These four places have common features:
(1) The terrain is flat.
(2) The business network is ends within a limited area.
(3) Most shops were established a long time ago.

In a word, industrial bicycles inhabit village-like towns. In spite of the contradiction in terms, industrial bicycles exist in towns creating closed spaces like villages. In such towns, shops have regular customers and suppliers living within an area of up to 2 km. Some industrial bicycles are strong enough to deliver goods weighing around 80 kg. Since bicycles are not subject to One Way or No Parking restrictions, they are very convenient for transportation within the neighborhood. Furthermore, since people can easily recognize a biker, they have a chance to directly discuss business at the roadside with any acquaintance they happen to see.

While listening to the people I interviewed, I strongly felt that industrial bicycles were town vehicles, or town creatures. Industrial bicycles help develop the relationship between the business of shops and the town by delivering goods.

Iryoku Go (Model Iryoku) manufactured by Ando Kogyo: a robust bicycle, still used for delivering books. This bicycle belongs to the category Heavy Duty Vehicle among industrial bicycles. (At Yagi bookshop at Kanda Ogawacho)

Another aspect of the industrial bicycle is that it is the product of the town. In terms of the history of bicycles, industrial bicycles are quite unique to Japan. According to Kazuo Yadagai, a curator of the Bicycle Culture Center, domestic bicycles were first produced based on bicycles imported in the late Meiji Period, and have been uniquely developed for transportation use since the Taisho Period. They were produced not by a big factory, but by a group of small and medium-sized factories, located in the Joto and Jonan areas in Tokyo, for example. Bicycles are built with a frame and many other components, each of which has been improved by minor manufacturing factories in towns over the years. As a result, the industrial bicycle itself has been refined in a slightly different way at each factory. Finally, industrial bicycles show a wide variation in model and type. This process is unique to Japan. In other words, the industrial bicycles that we see now are the product of the Japanese manufacturing history accumulated throughout the modern era.

Further, the industrial bicycle was often customized as a model suitable for the given business needs by a cycle shop in a town before handover to its owner. The appearance of an industrial bicycle varies depending on when it was manufactured, which factory manufactured it, and the industry that the owner was engaged in. For example, a clerk at a liquor shop, who delivers heavier goods by bicycle, tends to ride a strongly built bicycle. On the other hand, a clerk at an electrical appliance shop, who has little need to deliver heavy goods, tends to ride a more compact bicycle. Rear carriers show a wide variation in size depending on the line of business.

Benny Go (Model Benny) manufactured by Yamaguchi Bicycle: Actually this bicycle is now in my possession. After a few ups and downs following the interview with the previous owner, it was passed on to me. This bicycle is categorized as a practical use vehicle. (At Oka sho Uraji Button Shop at Kanda Sudacho)

The industrial bicycle, which had been commonly found here and there in Japanese towns, decreased its number at the same time as the end of the Showa period. This change was exactly equal to the change of environment, streetscape, and business in Japan, especially in Tokyo.

Following the Kanda area, I am now preparing for investigation of industrial bicycles in the Tsukiji Market and environs. It is in the Tsukiji district that many industrial bicycles are actually used, though the number decreases year by year. In the Tsukiji Market that is crowded with people and goods, bicycles definitely play good supporting roles in town. I myself want to move about in the market by bicycle so that I can thoroughly feel and observe the atmosphere of the market.

In recent years, I have often seen a courier service person riding a new and shiny bicycle for delivery, especially in the downtown areas of Tokyo. Contrary to such a new movement, my sensor detects abandoned old industrial bicycles. I am surprised how many bicycles have been abandoned. I eagerly want to rescue them and make them run actively again in town. As a first step, I have started an online activity. (See the following linked site.)

Improving the habitat of industrial bicycles which seem like creatures for me is not a nostalgic longing for the good old days. It is, I believe, changing our hometown to be more humane one again. For realizing this simple desire, I activate my sensor today.

Reference lined site

Industrial Bicycle Workshop

Yoichi Sato
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

The author was born in 1966, and received a Doctorate of Engineering from the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. He specializes in urban history and video representation of the urban space, and conducts exercise classes in the production of video content based on environment representation theory, visual study, urbanology, and field work. His primary works include: Kanda and Jimbocho on that Day, and Illustration: Tokyo during the Occupation. His recent study focuses on the histories of various goods on the roadside in the urban area, pictures of urban spaces in postwar Tokyo, and video representation history. Professor Sato is also in charge of taking pictures for the cover of the university public relations magazine “Campus Now”.