Japanese bicycles are often of very fine quality, but few are available in the U.S. market today, due to unfavorable currency exchange rates. There are still many very fine Japanese bicycles available on the used market, and this article is intended as a guide to them.
Japanese Bicycle Brands...Quick Jump
American Eagle | Azuki | Bianchi | Bridgestone | Centurion | Diamondback | Fuji | C. Itoh | Kabuki | Kuwahara | Lotus | Maruishi | Matsushita | Mikado | Miyata | Nishiki | Panasonic | Peugeot | Puch | Raleigh/Rampar | Royce Union | Soma | Schwinn | Sekine | Shogun | Specialized | Suteki | Takara | Terry | Univega
Japanese Parts...Quick Jump
Akisu | Arai | Araya | Asahi | Avocet | Belt | Cat Eye | Dia Compe | DID | Hoshi | Inoue/I.R.C. | Ishiwata | Kashimax | Kyokuto/K.K.T. | Maeda | Mikashima | Mitsuboshi | MKS | National | Nitto | Ritchey | Sakae Ringyo | Sampson | Sansin | Shimano | Silver Star | Skyway | Specialized | Speedic | S.R. | Sunshine | Sun Tour | Sugino | Suzue | Tange | Tioga | Ukai | V.I.A. | Wheelsmith
I divide the history of Japanese bicycles in the U.S. into four periods:
- The Dark Ages
- The Invasion
- The Glory Years
- The Flight to Taiwan
After the Second World War, Japan was primarily know for making cheap knockoffs of foreign designs, competing on the basis of cheap labor. This began to turn around in the camera and electronics industries in the 1950s, but they didn't figure out how to make and sell bicycles for the U.S. market until the early 1970s.
As the 1970s opened, the U.S. market for adult bicycles was basically owned by the French and English. While Japanese bicycles were manufactured to very high tolerances, and nicely finished (considerably better than their European competition) they had not yet come to terms with the fact that the average American is taller and heavier than the average Japanese. (This gap was wider at the time than it is now, due to the privations the Japanese population suffered during and after the war.)
Royce UnionThe most widely distributed Japanese bike of this era was sold under the name Royce Union. This was a 10 speed, pretty much all steel except for the handlebar stem and the Dia Compe brakes. This bike was only available in one size, 20", which was considerably too small for an average American man. It was equipped with Araya steel rims, which were beautifully made, much smoother and truer than European steel rims of the era...but not strong enough to withstand the weight of an average American rider. This was partly due to design, and partly due to the fact that Japanese steel was not as good as European (nor American) steel.
Even though these bikes were not durable, they did have their good points, most particularly the Shimano Lark rear derailer. Although the Lark was quite heavy, it shifted markedly better than the French Hurét Alvits and Simplex Prestiges that were coming through on the bikes from Europe.
Although Japanese derailers had appeared as original equipment on Japanese bikes, this was the first model to make a big splash in the aftermarket. The VGT was a wide-range touring derailer, using Sun Tour's patented "slant parallelogram" design. The VGT was a reasonably light derailer, with a large chain take-up capacity, and a very light action, compared to the early '60s designs from Simplex and Hurét. The shifting ease and performance was dramatically superior to the older designs. When a rider who had been using French derailers first tried out a VGT, the effect was as startling as the later transition from friction to index shifting.
The first Japanese company to figure out the U.S. market was Nichibei Fuji (not to be confused with all the other Japanese companies that are called "Fuji"; "Fuji" is roughly the Japanese equivalent of "Acme.") The U.S. importer at the time was Eugene Ritvo, from the Boston area, and he seems to have been the first knowledgeable U.S. cyclist to succeed in getting a major Japanese bike maker to listen to him.
He spec'ed the breakthrough model, the S-10-S, and, when the first batch had persistent spoke breakage problems, he insisted that all of the wheels be replaced.
The S-10-S featured Sugino Maxy cotterless cranks (while competitive models from Europe were still using steel cottered cranks). It had a well designed, butted frame, available in a full range of sizes, nearly indestructible Ukai aluminum rims, and the bike soon acquired an excellent reputation for reliability and performance.
The S10-S had aluminum handlebars & stem, Sunshine high-flange hubs, and a Belt leather saddle. This model name was continued for several years. In 1977 it was upgraded to 12-speed, and later the name was changed to S12-S.
Throughout the '70s and early '80s, "Touring" was the hottest buzzword in the industry, and it was hard to find any bicycle part that didn't feature "tour" or "touring" in its name or advertising.
The loaded touring bike was the most prestigious type of bike, and was generally recommended as the ideal general purpose bike for the serious cyclist. Unfortunately, such bikes were not available from stock; a buyer would have to start with a "sport touring" bike and make various modifications to turn it into a thorougbred touring machine. Around 1985, the industry finally figured out how to make a good off-the shelf touring bike. Suddenly, all of the Japanese builders got it together at once, and serious, ready-to-ride touring bikes became available, with triple chainwheels, cantilever brakes, triple water bottle mounts, front and rear rack braze-ons, barcons, 40 spoke rear wheels, sealed bearings. Centurion, Fuji, Miyata, Panasonic, Shogun, Specialized, Univega and others offered these bikes. Some of these companies offered 2 or 3 different models at different price ranges. At the same time, the mid 1980s, the Dollar reached a peak against the Japanese Yen (260 ¥ to the $!) The Japanese tourers of this era were an value unequalled before or since.
Unfortunately, however, the touring market turned out to be finite and limited. The baby boomers were aging and beginning to be gainfully employed, and many of them were less enthusiastic about loaded touring than they had been in their student days. The huge volume of touring bikes turned out in the 1985 model year didn't sell out right away. Running on momentum, the Japanese continued pumping out wonderful touring bikes through the 1986 model year...but far too many of these bikes were still unsold at the end of the '86 selling season.
The bicycle industry has always tended toward a "pack mentality." Everybody wants to make whatever is most popular, and nothing else. At the end of the '86 model year, all of the manufacturers said, with one voice "Whoah! Touring bikes are over!. No more touring bikes! Now we will all build...mountain bikes! Touring bikes became extinct at the production level. Well into the early '90s, a cyclist seeking a touring bike would be sold a left-over '86.
Around 1987 the bottom fell out of the Dollar, and it became worth less than half what it had been against the Yen. This made Japanese bikes un-affordable for most Americans.
Ten years previously, the Japanese industry, under American guidance, made the transition from shoddy bikes, unsuited to the U.S. market to a position of dominance in the U.S. market. This cycle was repeated, as the Taiwanese bicycle industry, under Japanese guidance, learned to build bicycles with the design and quality needed to succeed in the U.S. market.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, the Japanese bicycle industry was polarized into two contending factions: Shimano vs. everybody else. "Everybody else" mainly amounted to a loose association between Sun Tour (derailers, shifters & freewheels), Sugino (cranks) and Dia Compe (brakes.) While European and American manufacturers would feel free to pick and choose components, Japanese bikes would generally be equipped with parts entirely from one camp or the other.
Shimano started out as the underdog, and had a reputation for being a bit flighty and always changing their product lines, while Sun Tour and its allies were more stable. Dealers liked this stability, because it simplified parts replacement. In this era, Shimano replacement parts were hard fo find in bike shops, partly because of the constant churning of new model introductions and partly because Shimano didn't do a very good job of communicating with or supporting the dealers.
Unfortunately for Sun Tour et. al., Shimano's willingness to keep trying new ideas led to some real improvements in technology, and eventually the more conservative parts makers got left behind as the European manufacturers had before them.
Indexed shifting was not a new idea. It went back at least to the 1930s. The problem was to get it to work well enough to be worth the trouble. In the early '80s, both Sun Tour and Shimano were working on the problem. Sun Tour had a system called "Trimec" which was offered as a gimmick feature on a few mid-range models, but it didn't work too well, and they abandoned it.
Shimano's first attempt was called "Positron." At the time, Shimano was supplying parts mainly for department-store and other low-end bikes. They reasoned that these bikes were most likely to be bought by beginners, who were the most likely customers to have trouble mastering conventional friction shifting. Thus, they introduced the Positron system on low-end bikes, where it languished for several years. In an effort to make shifting even easier for beginners, they also developed the Front Freewheeling System, where the freewheel was built into the bottom bracket, instead of the rear hub. The putative advantage of this was that it permitted the rider to shift while the bike was coasting, since the chain was in motion even when the rider wasn't pedaling. (The FFS was sometimes used with Positron, sometimes without it; Positron was sometimes used with FFS, sometimes without it.)
Positron never succeeded in a big way. For one thing, since it was used on cheap bikes, the parts of the system had to be cheap to make, so it was difficult to get the needed precision to make the system work well. In addition, the system became associated with cheapo beginner bikes, so there was no tendency for the technology to "trickle up" to mid-priced bikes. Shimano gave up on Positron, but they didn't give up on indexed shifting.
Their next attempt to market indexing used exactly the opposite approach, an approach which has been followed ever since in Shimano's strategy: Start at the top, then let the technology "trickle down." S.I.S. (Shimano Indexing System) debuted in the top-of-the-line Dura Ace racing group in 1984 (1985?) as a 6-speed system, using conventional cables, with the detents (clicks) built into the shift lever. The original Dura Ace S.I.S. lever set was a masterpiece of ergonomics, and offered the option of switching the index mode on or off.
At first, many racers laughed at S.I.S., because they already knew how to shift. Some complained that they were unsuitable for racing use because the audible click could be heard by one's opponents, so they'd know when you were going to attack. Others objected that the indexing wouldn't work with the spare wheels on the team car that had Regina freewheels on them. None of these objections amounted to much for most riders, and S.I.S. was an instant success. In 1986 it "trickled down" to the 600 EX group, and by 1987 it had become almost impossible to sell a bike with friction-only shifting.
With S.I.S., Shimano had opened an un-closeable gap on their competition. Sun Tour soon came out with their own indexing system which was "just as good" as the Shimano system...last year's Shimano system! Shimano continued to improve on S.I.S., and the market soon realized this. By the early '90s, it had become extremely difficult to sell any bike that didn't feature Shimano derailers.
Once Shimano had acquired a near monopoly on the derailer market, they attempted, with considerable succes, to extend that monopoly.
Before the S.I.S. revolution, you could mostly use anybody's shift lever with anybody's derailer. Indexing introduced the concept of "dedication" to bicycle technology: If you wanted S.I.S., you had to use a Shimano shift lever, Shimano cables and housing, Shimano derailer, Shimano freewheel or, better yet, cassette hub and a Shimano chain. It said so right in the manual.
(I bought a first-generation Dura Ace shift lever set when they first came out. I didn't think the indexing would amount to much, but I needed a new set of levers, and loved the feel of the Shimano units. Once I had them installed on my favorite bike, with a Sun Tour Cyclone derailer, Regina Oro 6-speed freewheel on a Campagnolo Record hub, and a Sedisport chain, I couldn't resist trying to get the indexing to work. It wasn't that hard to do, mainly I just needed to install an adjusting barrel in the Cyclone derailer so I could fine tune the cable tension. This system is still going strong, and indexes just fine.)
Having persuaded people that they needed to match their shift lever, derailer, freewheel and chain, Shimano gradually extended the "dedication" principle as a way to grab more market share for their cranksets, hubs, etc.
They introduced front-indexing, while telling people that it could only be guaranteed to work if they used Shimano cranksets...and soon, Sugino was no longer the #1 crank company.
In 1990, they introduced combined brake-shift levers, so that if you wanted upper-end Shimano shifting on your mountain bike, the shifters were (at first) only available with brake levers attached...and soon, Dia Compe was no longer the #1 brake company.
Shimano introduced cassette "freehubs" around 1980. Initially, the major selling point was that it was easier to change clusters as a "cassette" so that a racer could customize gearing for a particular course. These hubs also had a superior axle/bearing design which made them pretty much immune from broken/bent axles. They were a hard sell, though, because if you bought one, you could only use Shimano cassettes, while a conventional thread-on hub would let you use anybody's thread-on freewheel. They didn't really catch on until Shimano introduced 7-speed S.I.S...and offered 7-speed freewheels only in close-ratio sizes appropriate to road-racing bikes...so, if you wanted a 21-speed MTB in 1989 (and everybody wanted a 21-speed MTB in 1989!), you had to have a Shimano freehub.
In fairness to Shimano, I should add that the introduction of 7-speed MTB shifting coincided with the introduction of Hyperglide, which was the final nail in Sun Tour's coffin. This brilliant innovation used specially shaped sprocket teeth and ramps on the sides of the sprockets to provide notably smoother shifting. Previous derailer shifting had worked by having the derailer move the chain sideways so that the resulting chain angle would cause the chain to derail from the sprocket it was on. Once the chain was derailed, with any luck, it would soon fall onto the next sprocket, and soon mesh with it. With Hyperglide, however, the sprocket were specifically designed so that as the chain left one sprocket, the ramps and special teeth would cause the chain to be fully engaged with the new sprocket before it disengaged from the old one. The result was smoother, quieter, faster shifting than anyone had believed possible. Part of what made this work was that the rotational position of each sprocket was aligned with that of the adjacent sprocket. This cannot be done with sprockets that thread onto a freewheel, it only works with splined sprocket that slide on in only one orientation. This is more easily done on a freehub cassette than with a thread-on freewheel, due to clearance problems.
The following is a list of some Japanese bicycle brands that I have come across,
with scattered information about them.
I welcome additions and corrections, most of this material is from memory, which may be faulty.
Note that many of the brand names commonly perceived as being manufacturers, are not actually manufacturers, but rather are trading/importing companies, who have bicycles made for them by other companies. This is not a bad thing, and many of the top brands work this way. The company whose name is on the down tube will design the bike, specify the equipment, and provide quality control. Some brand names have been, at different times, manufacturers and importers. In fact, sometimes a company with an actual factory will have some models made by other (overseas) factories, while making others in-house.
Petersen, a hard-core cyclist, marched to a "different drummer" than most of the industry. He introduced many innovations to the market, and also strongly resisted other trends and innovations that he didn't approve of.
Bridgestones have a backwards numbering system, and, generally, the lower the number, the higher the quality.
The RB-2 had the same geometry as the RB-1, but with slightly less expensive tubing and considerably less expensive parts.
The RB-3 was a low-end model, of little interest.
The RB-T was a touring bike introduced in the early '90s, a time when touring bikes were extremely out of fashion with manufacturers. It was a very nice bike, but had trouble competing with the left-over stock of mid-80s touring bikes still in the pipeline. This bike also came with Avocet slick tires, which are splendid tires, but difficult to sell, since most people assume (incorrectly) that they will provide poor traction.
The predominant style of mountain bikes in the early-mid '80s was the "California cruiser" geometry inspired by the Schwinn Excelsior "klunkers", with 44 inch wheel bases, 18 inch or longer chain stays, and frame angles in the high 60 degree range. These bikes were very stable for downhill use on Repack hill, but were not very good climbers. Petersen's Bridgestones had much steeper frame angles and much shorter chain stays, which made them considerably more maneuverable and nimble than the older designs, and considerably better climbers. In the '80s this design was considered "radical" but it proved itslef on the trail, and was copied by everybody a few years later. This Bridgestone design still is the standard for rigid frame MTBs.
Some MBs were made in Japan, others in Taiwan, different models in different years. You can easily tell which, because the Japanese models all used lug construction, while the Taiwanese models were T.I.G. welded.
In the early '90s, the Taiwanese MB-0 (a.k.a. "MB-Zip") pushed the envelope of lightness for steel-framed mountain bikes. These top-of-the line bikes were amazingly light, but, unfortunately, a bit too light, and prone to frame failure if ridden hard off-road.
Bridgestone bikes tend to have Long top tubes.
This site has an extensive separate Bridgestone Section, including complete catalogue scans from 1987-94 click here.
The Centurion "Comp TA" was a particularly nice sport bike, but they had to abandon this model designation due to a conflict with an automotive tire manufacturer who owned the trademark. They substituted the model name "Dave Scott Ironman", making this possibly the first mass-produced bicycle targetted at the triathlon market.
In the early '90s, W.S.I. stopped using the Centurion brand name, and applied the Diamondback brand to their road models as well as the BMX/MTB lines. There is also an unrelated Centurion bicycle company based in Denmark
See also "Centurion"
The Fuji Touring Series was a fine range of loaded touring bikes in the mid '80s.
Fuji fell on hard times in the early '90s. They were one of the last Japanese bike companies to shift production to Taiwan after the fall of the Dollar against the Yen made Japanese bikes uncompetitive in the U.S. It is my belief that Fuji, being a late comer to Taiwanese production, took a while to build up a good working relationship with the Taiwanese factories, because the early '90s Taiwanese Fujis were not so hot. Current Fujis are fine, but the company has not yet recovered the reputation it had during the Glory Years.
See also the Cycles de Oro Fuji Page.
The Kabuki line used some unusual construction techniques, specifically, they had a system of sticking the frame tubes into a special mold and forming cast aluminum "lugs" in place around the ends of the tubes. The most notable of this line was the "Submariner" which used un-painted stainless steel tubing, and was marketed in seacoast areas for its rust-resistance. Because the cast aluminum lugs were not flexible like steel lugs, these bikes didn't use a conventional seat-post binder. Instead, they used a seatpost with an expander wedge like that of a handlebar stem...you had to remove the saddle from the seatpost to adjust the height, then re-install the saddle! Even sillier, many of these frames had what looked like a conventional seatpost bolt mounted in a projection of the rigid lug, simply to provide a place to mount a cable stop for the center-pull caliper brake!
They also made touring bikes and tandems, but not widely distributed in the U.S.
Kuwahara supplied the bikes for the 1988 Canadian Olympic team.
Miyata touring bikes, including the 1000 and the lesser (but still extremely nice) 610 came with very unusual tires, Panasonic radials. These may be the only radial bicycle tires ever sold.
Later, the Nishiki brand became a division of Derby, along with Raleigh and Univega. The Nishiki and Univega names were retired in 2001 so that Derby could concentrate on its Raleigh brand.
In the late '80s, they had a plan to supply semi-custom bikes, using "just-in-time" production methods. The program was called "P.I.C.S." (Panasonic Individualized Custom System). The frames were stock, but were painted to order (with the customer's name optionally painted on the top tube) and with a custom-length handlebar stem.
From a posting by Yellow Jersey's Andrew Muzi:
Japanese-built Panasonic/National/Matsushita frames are of excellent quality at each price range. You can distinguish them from outsourced bikes by the serial number location. Osaka-built frames are serial numbered on the lower headlug. The second digit is the year, e.g., T5M78563 would be a 1985 frame
For information on French-made Peugeots, see my French Bicycles Page.
Raleigh U.S.A. is now a division of Derby, along with Univega and Nishiki
Univega was one of the first major companies to market mountain bikes in the early '80s, with their Alpina series.
Univega is later a division of Derby, along with Nishiki and Raleigh, but the Univega and Nishiki brand names were retired in 2001 so that Derby could concentrate on it's Raleigh brand.
They were one of the first companies to make a reliable cyclecomuter, and remain the world's leading maker of cyclecomputers.
They also make lighting equipment of various sorts. Like everything else Cat Eye makes, they are very high quality.
Dia Compe is the leading proponent of threadless headsets, under their trade names "Aheadset" and Diatech."
I am intimately familiar with Ishiwata and their products, having been in the factory a few times, spec'd many bikes with their steel and built with it. I still use Ishiwata tube for frame repair.
The material  is virtually identical to Columbus SP/SL/SLX. The top range of tubes were seamles double butted and the finish quality [as delivered to the builder] was much higher than Columbus. The tubing gauge of the 022 is 0.9/0.6 mm, exatcly the same as Columbus SP. It's called "022" because the frame tube set weighs 2.2 kilos. The same material drawn thinner to 0.8/0.5 mm is called "019" because it weighs 1.9 kilos, just like Columbus SL. Many builders, then and now, mix gauges so a small frame might be all 019 but a 56 would have 022 chainstays and downtube for example.
Trek in the late '70s built three racing frames, one with Ishiwata, one Reynolds 531 and one Columbus. Geometry and weight were identical. The prices were unreasonably different because of the cachet of Italian tubing, making the Ishiwata frame the best value. Marketing took over later as the Ishiwata was dropped completely. With the advent of aluminum, the currency crash and the Japanese depression, Ishiwata closed the doors in the early '90s.
In addition to producing product under their own label, Sanshin also acted as a subcontractor for SunTour; all SunTour-labelled hubs came from Sanshin. I don't know if there was any corporate cross-ownership, but, in the late '80s, Sanshin's president was Mamoru Kawai, the younger son of Junzo Kawai, Maeda/SunTour's chairman.
Sanshin's factory was in Shiga-ken, maybe an hour from Maeda's offices in Sakai-shi. In the mid-'80s they were diversifying a bit into forging auto parts. I don't know what happened to them when Maeda was purchased then went under.
Sanshin made a beautiful ProAm model high-flange hub in the late '70s. The flanges only had 5 cut-outs, leaving a distinctive star-shaped center section. Very nice bearing quality, lots of polish and pretty anodizing.
The Sugino AT was the first to use the 110 mm/74 mm bolt circle, and was possibly the finest triple crank ever.
Tube sets "Number 1", "Number 2", etc. have thicker walls as the numbers get higher.
Their top-of-the-line tubeset is the heat-treated "Prestige."
Tange is also the leading Japanese producer of Headsets (Levin) and rigid forks, as well as a major producer of Bottom brackets.
In the post WW2 era, most Japanese industries acquired similar governing bodies under the J.I.S.C. (Japanese Industrial Standards Committee). These agencies helped to turn around the international reputation of Japanese products from the former stereotype of cheap copies of western designs to their present high reputation for quality and reliability.
"Æro" side-pull brake calipers, with the upper arm close to the centerline of the bike, were mostly used in 1981-82.
Down-tube shift levers mounted on top of the down-tube, instead of on the side, were mainly supplied in the 1982-83 model year.
By 1986, most models had indexed shifting.
Mountain bikes with "U-brakes" under the chain stays were mainly from the 1987 model year, though some were made in '86 and '88.
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