It’s Sunday afternoon in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, and the local Harley-Davidson shop, American Street, is playing host to a stream of visitors in black leather jackets.
Walking through the showroom, which is adorned with such nostalgic items of Americana as a gasoline pump calibrated to 19 and 7/10 cents a gallon, an antique wringer-type washing machine, a “jawbreaker” gum-ball dispenser and several U.S. Route 66 road signs, the visitors cast appreciative glances at some 15 Harley models. The distinctive throaty rumble of a V-twin engine resonates from an adjacent service area.
“We can sell you one with the ‘Shovelhead’ engine (made between 1966-83, and so-named for the shape of its rocker-arm housing) for around 2 million yen,” says employee Hirosumi Matsui, himself a Harley fanatic. That compares with a list price of about 2.5 million yen for a brand-new, fully equipped Harley FLHRCI Road King Classic — not a huge difference. “But our ‘Evolution’ Harleys, built from 1984-98, are cheaper — from 1 to 2 million yen,” he quickly adds.
Since opening in September last year, American Street has procured about 250 used models from the United States and shipped them for resale in Japan. It relies on imports of these classic machines to compete with Harley-Davidson Japan, a fully owned affiliate of the Milwaukee, Wis.-based manufacturer founded in 1903.
The typical customer at American Street tends to be an experienced rider who, after owning one or more domestic models, seeks something to stand out from the crowd and finds appeal in the Harley attributes of “tradition” and “authenticity.”
The durable Harley design enables it to be ridden for decades. And spare parts can be air-freighted from U.S. suppliers within four days.
“Maintenance and upkeep will cost more than domestic models, but not all that much,” says Matsui, who pointed out that a machine’s age can be more of an asset than a liability: “Many customers are thrilled with the idea of owning a bike built the same year they were born.”
Harley-Davidson Japan reported sales of 9,467 units last year, and now commands the top market share among foreign and domestic heavyweight bikes. Three-quarters of its customers are said to be over age 30, and one in five is over 50.
These affluent, middle-aged men typically festoon their machines with windshields, saddlebags, spotlights, stereos and other accouterments of what is known as “full-dress” regalia. Some, determined to play out their fantasy to the hilt, even outfit their machines to resemble U.S. police models, complete with sirens and flashing blue lights.
“Compared to riding a Japanese bike, the feeling’s completely different on a Harley,” says Toru Ijichi, head of an all-male group that meets twice monthly to ride and swap stories about their machines. “Cruising in formation gives us, well, a feeling of superiority.”
Though many other and younger riders also probably yearned to ride the big American (or other) machines, they were long discouraged by a policy that made it exceptionally troublesome to obtain a driver’s license for large models.
However, as Toshihiro Tadano, editor of the motorbike magazine Vibes, explains, “Three years ago, police streamlined the system to permit a license to be issued to anyone with a certificate from a driving school. Since then, interest in owning a Harley seems to have picked up.”
And so, apparently, have the prices. Used Shovelhead models now command nearly twice the price here that they do in the U.S., making it profitable for shops like American Street to import them directly.
In marked contrast with customer data released by Harley-Davidson Japan, half of Vibes readers are in their 20s, and 80 percent are under 35. Tadano notes that younger riders gravitate toward customized street bikes, known as “choppers” — each one literally one of a kind, but recognizable by such embellishments as tiny bicycle-style seats, audacious “ape hanger” handlebars and — perhaps most desired by the true cognoscenti of the street-bike crowd — a pedal-type “suicide clutch” that requires exceptional agility to operate.
The lifting of licensing restrictions came none too soon; after peaking at 3.28 million units in 1982, new motorbike registrations steadily declined, to just 779,887 last year.
To appeal to potential buyers, the industry has been working to get the remaining legal restrictions revoked. In addition to facilitating issuance of licenses, it persuaded authorities to drop the discriminatory speed limit of 80 kph on expressways, at last allowing riders to wind their throttles to the same 100 kph as car drivers. As well, it seems the longstanding prohibition against tandem riding on expressways may also be ended soon.
“Japan is the only economically advanced country with this kind of ridiculous policy,” complains two-up riding enthusiast Hideo Yoshiwara, who has spent years leading an energetic campaign for the restriction to be removed. “But if things work out, the law may be changed as early as next year,” he predicts.
Nonetheless, Vibes’ Tadano estimates Japan currently has “between 50,000 to 60,000” Harley owners — roughly 5 percent of all models over 250cc. Last month, the 10th annual “Vibes Meeting” sponsored by his magazine drew 7,000 enthusiasts to Sodegaura in Chiba Prefecture.
“Japanese riders don’t just crave speed; they want to look good when they ride,” he says. “For these kind of people, riding a Harley is part of their life.”