Cycling has enjoyed a renewed boom in popularity in recent years as an eco-friendly means of transportation and for its health benefits. Reflecting this trend, more and more helmet-donning businesspeople are seen cycling to work on their glimmering sports bikes these days, often gliding past cars on busy roads around Tokyo.
But Eric Ossing, a longtime Japan resident who works for a European IT company in Tokyo as a translator, has lately been fascinated with bikes of a completely different nature: Japanese utility bicycles from the 1950s.
The 49-year-old American, who lives in a residential neighborhood of Kawasaki with his Japanese wife, first came into contact with these old Japanese bikes five years ago. Before that, Ossing was a fan of contemporary lightweight models, touring around the nation with his custom-made 27-gear road bike. But then one day, the frame of his bike cracked.
“I realized that in my pursuit for lighter and faster bicycles I was sacrificing simplicity, comfort, convenience and utility for speed,” he tells The Japan Times. “That’s fine if you are a racer, but I’m not.”
He adds that the damage to his bike made him aware that, over time, he had “lost that freewheeling childhood sense of enjoyment in cycling.”
Around that time, Ossing happened to stumble across a rusty 1950s utility bicycle being offered for sale on the retail website Yahoo! Auction.
He bought the bicycle, which might have originally been used for making deliveries, for ¥8,000, replaced the punctured tires and polished the frame. During that process, Ossing says he fell in love with the craftsmanship that had gone into manufacturing bikes such as that.
He has since dug deeper into the world of bike restoration, picking up frames and parts through the auction site, and has completely restored nine vintage bicycles so far.
“Everyone thinks these bikes are pieces of metal junk,” Ossing says at his home, where shiny bikes are neatly lined up in a second-floor room and where dated banners advertising bicycles — and even a handwritten menu of repair jobs that was once hung at a bike shop somewhere in Japan — grace the walls. “But they’re not junk — they really are crafts.”
Ossing says that bikes in the 1950s, which in Japan was during the Showa Era, were similar to the luxury cars of today. They cost about two months’ salary, and many people paid for them in installments. Rental bikes were common, too.
“These bikes were simple, comfortable, functional and over-engineered to last a lifetime,” he says. “In today’s disposable society, few products are built to last, but these bicycles will easily outlive their original owners.”
Restoring an old bike, however, poses a big challenge, Ossing says, because not all parts were standardized — even for up to 10 years after the enactment of the Industrial Standardization Law, which established the JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) certification system in 1949.
But this also makes the restoration process more fun, since, as Ossing has discovered, nearly each and every part of a bike — ranging from bolts and badges to tires — bears the manufacturer’s name or logo on it. A Dunlop tire in the 1950s, for example, has what appears to be the face of the company’s founder, John Boyd Dunlop, impressed on it, says Ossing, proudly pointing to one such tire that he obtained through the Internet. When he rides a bike with this tire after a rainy day, it leaves a trace of the bearded man’s face on the road — just like a rubber stamp.
Another feature of these bikes that wowed Ossing is their colorful cloisonne badges, most often featuring the logo of its manufacturer. “The detail and craftsmanship that went into these badges is amazing,” he says.
Of course, Showa bikes have their shortfalls. While Ossing says he likes the way the bikes are heavy and stable, “giving you enough exercise in a short distance,” the brakes become harder to work when they get wet in the rain, and start giving off a screeching sound. Also, they’re not much good for speed demons. But every time he goes shopping on one of them and parks the bike at a parking lot, he almost always finds an elderly Japanese staring at it and reminiscing.
“They are always surprised to learn the owner is a foreigner,” he says. “And the conversation is almost standard: ‘Boy, does this bring back memories. My father owned a bicycle just like this, and I first learned to ride on one of these … ‘ “
Ossing says that he sees in these bikes not only the craftsmanship of a bygone era but also the virtues valued by an older generation that have disappeared over time.
“The older generation survived the war,” says Ossing, who came to Japan for the first time as a United States Marine when he was 19. After serving at the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture for two years, he went back to the States and studied Japanese at university, before coming back to Japan several years later. “Unlike people today, old people had very little (when they were young), and were very focused on cherishing the things they had and making them last. They didn’t throw things away.
“I really feel people who grew up in the Showa Era are somewhat different from people today. I felt this the very first time I came to Japan. When they say goodbye to you, they would keep bowing (until you disappeared out of sight). It’s because they lived through such hard times. Younger people are different. They wouldn’t give up their seats on the train even if they were in priority-seat sections.”
Now, though, following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that battered much of the Tohoku region on March 11, Japan is in its biggest postdisaster phase since the end of World War II. Perhaps, precisely because the nation is going through such hard times, old-fashioned virtues might make a comeback here.
“To me, no other word better describes the mettle of the older generation, those who after the war rebuilt the nation, than the Japanese word kinsei,” he says. “The (word) is found on some bicycles produced around the early 1950s — a time when Japan was still in the stages of rebuilding after having been totally devastated by the war.
“This word means to pour one’s heart into humbly manufacturing the best product possible.
“Similarly, as the northeastern region of Japan sets out to rebuild, people are already pouring their hearts into rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses, and towns — and I am confident that, in the essence of kinsei, they will succeed.”
Eric Ossing blogs about vintage bikes in Japanese and English at www.chikutakurinrin.cocolog-nifty.com