Watch: Cool Japan – Bicycles

The next show is possibly one of my wildest dreams come true. In my previous house we had a pretty full satellite package and I discovered the wonders of NHK World, a kind of Japanese world service. One of the  finest shows on there is Cool Japan – a series in which foreign visitors to Japan get to experience whatever NHK has deemed necessary. Whole episodes have been devoted to – and I’m not making this up – cleaning utensils, perception of time, graves, stationery and even ‘Why Japanese People are Stress Tolerant?‘ among others. So when I sat down one evening a couple of years ago and it turned out that tonight’s episode was about bikes I got very excited.


Very excited


Cool Japan not only has the rather typical Japanese combination of a charming and keen  young woman paired with a grumpy older man, but also an international panel.


And an expert to explain why things are so important in Japan, and thus cool. Quite often it’s a professor, but for the bicycles episode it’s an author.


And so off go two of the foreign guests to a housing complex “a good spot for bike watching”


Our two guests are almost immediately professing astonishment, perhaps playing up to the camera (it’s certainly a regular feature in the show). “look at the age group, age difference here” says one before the narrator comes over and says, directly “they’re right, bicycles are being used by all ages”.


“They always have a basket … even little kids on the small bikes have a basket.”


And then as he mother turns a corner they get even more surprised. “hey look , she’s riding with her baby”.


They then interview a series of mothers who are riding past with their children.


Narrator: “There are moms with kids on bikes, quite a typical scene in Japan.”

“I have to carry the bags and take my child too, so with these baskets I only have to make one trip. I’d have a hard time without them.” says one mother.


“How often do you use this bike?” they ask another. “Every day, dropping off and picking up my kids in the morning and afternoon, going to work. I use it for everything.”


“You must be a strong lady” they say to another who shows off her muscles, jokingly.


They then go to a large retailer which has over 300 bikes in stock.


The Australian of the pair exploring is fascinated that almost every bike has a basket.


They even spend a little time looking at the mamachari style of bike they were so fascinated by when they saw it on the streets.


The narrator notes that inside the store there is plenty in there “that would make moms happy” and then the camera zooms in on this special cover to keep children dry.


At the end of the segment it’s a shock, but the foreign guests think it’s all very cool.


The narration chips in again, “Is the mamachari culture deeply rooted in the everyday lives of the Japanese people, cool?”


They then go to the Kanda region of Tokyo and look at the bikes used for work.


Narrator: “These work bikes are useful in Kanda, where there are many narrow roads.”

“This one has a sign for the store!”


This man says he’s been using this bike for his deliveries for 30 years.


And then they find a trailer bike being used by a parcel courier, making great play of the environmentally friendly aspects.


Narrator: “recently people commuting to work on bikes have been attracting attention. They are called tsukinists, coming from the word tsukin, meaning to commute.” Again, much is made of the eco-friendly nature of this. It doesn’t look like the conditions are that great.


And then things get rather boring as they go to a posh bike park.


It is rather posh, though it’s using part of an existing underground car park.

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Which also has showers.



But the coolest thing is this parking lot is this guy’s lyrca.


Back in the studio one of our hosts explains the features of a mamachari bicycle:


  1. a basket for carrying groceries and bags
  2. frame bent low, so it’s easier for women to step over
  3. a rear carrier, so a child seat can be added
  4. a chain guard prevents skirts and dresses getting caught up
  5. double stand makes it stable when parked

Perhaps a bit obvious, but have you ever heard such a clear and straightforward description of a utility bike on TV where you live? I’ve not.

What’s great is at this point the British guy on the panel, James, points out that England has a really similar thing and starts imitating the posture. Noting that the marketing doesn’t really appeal.


The guests are all asked about how normal carrying children on bikes is. It varies quite a lot. Then the Australian ruins it all by getting more excited about the parking.


Next the English guy is sent to wear ridiculous shorts and look at electric bikes.


They really are some awful shorts.


They are really keen to explain how they work, so we get this animation.


But the Japanese guy is thinking “what’s with those shorts? what is wrong with shorts culture in England?”


Still it is interesting, it turns out that a helmet law was passed in the 80s that put women off riding scooters. The electric bike was then created to work around that issue.


To make your electric bike work sensor timing is crucial, so they get three people and a bike to explain it properly. “let’s explain it more simply” they say and then do this:


So, if the guy with the whistle (the sensor) reacts too slowly that means the woman in yellow pushes too late and you’ll become all jerky.


But if the guy with the whistle is ON IT, then you are a bicycle NINJA (with the aid of the woman in yellow pushing you).


And if you’re going uphill you’ll need a gender balanced pair in yellow.


Got it? Good. Another wonderful part of this segment are various bits of film pretending to be archive footage of them designing the electric assisted bike. They keyboard kind of gives this away…

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Also their idea of a prototype is a bike covered in cardboard.


They eventually built this prototype after months if not years of work and presented it to the women of the company (clearly no female engineers in their design time!). The women, er…


…couldn’t get on the bike, because they wore skirts. Slight design flaw. So they had to move the battery.


Success! A bike the majority of the human population can ride in normal clothes.



And so in November of 1993 the first electric assist bike is introduced.


What was the impact of the bike? Well the representative of the company says:

“The president of our company received a letter from an elderly woman and she wrote saying that her husband’s grave was located on a hilltop and she was having difficulty going up there on a regular bicycle because of her age but after this power assisted bike was available she said she was able to visit her husband every day and she thanked us for it.”

And the technology was adapted into other wheeled products, like wheelchairs.


There is another discussion which also concludes with a lengthy monologue from the author where he decides that electric bikes are great because of Japanese culture. Which is pretty much the style of the show, more than anything else! They do this even when they discuss pens and paper.

Finally they send Heike from Germany to see a competition for school children. But it’s not a race.


This is bicycle club.


They practice riding in circles.


And in straight lines.


The kids are practicing with a goal to take part in the national safety competition.


But really this is bicycle training dressed up as a competition.


To get to the national tournament teams first have to win a regional tournament in their prefecture.

There is naturally a textbook.


From which this is a sample question and answer.


The hardest section is the rising skill test with events such as slow riding, where they need to take 25s to travel 10m.


And zig-zag riding, where you must avoid bollards as close as 1.1m apart.


“Heike rides a bike every day, let’s see what she has to show us!”



The kids are terrified


Off they go to the national tournament. With numbers on they…


…take the written test.


Next, the safety test.


The judges are policemen from the traffic department!



Then the more exciting riding skills test. Other schools are doing badly.



But Ishikawa are doing pretty well!


Finally they’re announcing the results!


And the kids win, and react with ABSOLUTE nonchalance.


Come back bikeability, all is forgiven.

Anyway, then it’s back to the studio where they have to decide which is the coolest thing. I won’t spoil that!


It’s a wonderfully odd film and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it! Watch:

Though do note lots of the detail of cycling in Japan isn’t explained. So do read Tokyo By Bike to get more of a lowdown especially this post that explains how cycling fits into a megacity like Tokyo.