Japan's Motorcycle Industry

All Shook Up

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Joe Neric

When the unprecedented, 9.0-magnitude Tohoku Earthquake struck 80 miles off the coast of northeast Japan on March 11, life in the island nation crashed to a halt. The enormously destructive quake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 10,000 people and caused severe property damage, including an ongoing nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi. These unpredictable events caused numerous aftershocks that rocked Japan’s massive manufacturing base, including the motorcycle industry, which was already reeling from a worldwide economic meltdown.

Some effects were immediate. A 43-year-old employee was killed and 17 of his co-workers were injured when a cafeteria wall collapsed at Honda’s Tochigi R&D facility. No Kawasaki, Suzuki or Yamaha plants suffered direct damage, but those companies joined Honda in immediately halting production. As this issue went to press three weeks after the quake, all of the Big Four had resumed production, but were limited to assembling units from in-stock parts. Literally hundreds of Tier 1 and 2 component suppliers serving the motorcycle industry were located in the affected area, and none could be sure when—or if—they would return to full capacity. In addition to upheavals in the supply and distribution chain, rolling electric blackouts, gasoline scarcity and persistent transportation delays have created logistical nightmares.

With so much uncertainty looming, Japan’s motorcycle industry is effectively on hold. The Japanese Grand Prix at Twin Ring Motegi—which sustained damage to its grandstands and track surface—has been rescheduled from April 24 to October 2, and the Tokyo Motorcycle Show, planned for the last weekend of March, was cancelled. Recovery will almost surely take years. With manufacturers now scrambling to develop relationships with suppliers in other countries, some pundits suggest the Japanese motorcycle industry might never return to its previous status, changing the status quo for good.

This scenario is unlikely, however. Japan is strong—the world’s third-largest economy—and the Bank of Japan acted quickly and aggressively to maintain investor confidence. The nation has also received significant recovery support, much from the motorcycle industry. The Big Four OEMs have pledged millions of dollars, plus material support including generators, electric bikes, blankets, bottled water and more. Their American subsidiaries and employees have given hundreds of thousands more, along with other industry members including the Harley-Davidson Foundation, Motorcycle Industry Council and Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Japan is a legendarily resilient nation, and we expect to enjoy its motorcycles for many years to come.

We For Japan: The MotoGP community is offering autographed T-shirts, proceeds of which will be presented to a humanitarian organization during the Japanese GP. To order one, log onto http://weforjapan.motogp.com.

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