JAPAN, YAMAHA, RICE PADDIES & WORLD MOTOCROSS DOMINANCE
By Daryl Ecklund
Have you ever heard of NMC (Nihon Motorcycle Company)? It is a name that has been lost in history. In 1908, Narazo Shimazu, owner of NMC, developed the first two-stroke engine made in Japan. In 1909, NMC made Japan’s first four-stroke production engine. Called the NS, it had a production run of 20 engines. It is important to note that by the time the NS engine was developed, Japan was already over 20 years behind the rest of the world when it came to motorcycle production. Given where the Japanese motorcycle industry was in 1909 and where it is today, we have to ask, how did the Japanese culture come to dominate the motorcycle industry? The answer is simple: rice paddies.
In 1885, the first motorcycle was made in Germany. It was called the Petroleum Reitwagan. Immediately after the Reitwagan appeared, there was an explosion of different motorcycle designs emerging from Germany, England and the United States at the turn of the century. Companies such as Harley-Davidson, Indian, Norton, BSA, BMW, DKW, Husqvarna and Triumph all surfaced early in the 20th century. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that the now-popular Japanese manufacturers even began producing motorcycles. So, what do rice paddies have to do with Japanese dominance of the motorcycle industry? I’ll tell you in due time, but you should know that it took me a full week of exploring Japan to find the answer.
SO, WHAT DO RICE PADDIES HAVE TO DO WITH JAPANESE DOMINANCE OF THE MOTORCYCLE INDUSTRY? I’LL TELL YOU IN DUE TIME.
After the success of Star Yamaha’s Jeremy Martin and Cooper Webb during the 2014 AMA National season, Yamaha invited the entire team for a week-long trip to Japan between seasons. Martin and Webb would go there to race the final round of the 2014 All-Japan National Championship in Sendai. I was there on a fact-finding mission and to tour the Yamaha motorcycle plants. Unfortunately, Jeremy Martin broke his foot the month before, so he was not able to attend. When I was selected by the powers that be at MXA to make this journey, I was of the mindset that this was going to be a pleasure trip. You know, check out the sights, see some trick bikes, watch a race, shake some hands, visit some factories and eat some real sushi (and, boy, do I love sushi). It turned out not to be much of a pleasure trip; instead, it was a mission.
As luck would have it, I found myself seated directly next to Yamaha’s assistant division R&D manager, Hank Ito, on the flight to Sendai, Japan. Hank would be my tour guide for the week. On the flight over, Hank filled me in on Yamaha’s roots and the Japanese culture. When we got off the plane in Sendai, I was the only other American in the terminal. Thus, when I ran into the Star Yamaha personnel, including Cooper Webb’s father Bobby, they seemed shocked to find me already there. “Are you with us?” asked Bobby. When I nodded, he asked, “The whole time?” I nodded again. I don’t know what they thought, but they acted standoffish, like they felt I was encroaching on their trip. I didn’t have the same feelings about them. Of course, it was probably too long ago for them to remember, but during my Supercross days, I actually had a tryout for the Star Yamaha Racing team with owner Bobby Regan. I didn’t get the ride, but I had a connection to the team. Plus, Cooper Webb’s mechanic, Eric Gass, got his start as an AMA mechanic back in 2007 with the Wyvern Motorsports team that I rode for back then. As we relived old times, the tension between the team and the new guy faded.
My first day in Sendai, Hank decided to show me around town. My first mistake was to get in on the wrong side of the car. Japan was the first country I had ever been to where they drove on the left side of the road. The streets were filled with hundreds of people walking to work. Almost all of them were in business suits. Even the people who weren’t on their way to work walked at a fast clip and carried briefcases. Hank said that the normal work week in Japanese culture is around 60 hours. There is no overtime. Even the school week runs from Monday through Saturday. On every corner there were small restaurants with seating for 15 people—or 10 Americans. It was a rare sight to see other Americans, and they would be easy to spot as they towered over the typical Sendai residents. The only two familiar things I came across in Sendai were a McDonald’s and a Starbucks.
Later that day, I headed off to the Sugo Motorsports facility, where the race was being held, to look at the track. Once out of the city, there were thousands of acres of finely manicured crops. Hank told me that they were all rice farms. Not an inch of space was wasted, as the rice paddies were meticulously organized. Flat farmland is at a premium, since 70 percent of Japan is covered with mountains (with 200 of those being volcanic). The Japanese agricultural industry knows how to get the most out of the land they have to cultivate.
AS THE TEAM DISASSEMBLED THE CRATE, JAPANESE FANS FLOCKED OVER TO SEE THE FACTORY YAMAHA FROM THE USA, WHILE I WAS DRAWN IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION.
Arriving at the Sugo Motorsports facility, there was a different atmosphere from the AMA Nationals. There were no semis in the pits due to the limited amount of land and small roads. Each team’s crew members wore hardhats when in their pits. The terrain of the Sugo track had dirt that looked like chocolate cake. It developed deep, long ruts. The track layout had some good elevation changes, but there were no doubles to be found. It was super wide in a few areas and narrow in others, with breaks in the flow at regular intervals around the track. The Japanese restrooms were also a different experience. Japanese plumbers are an inventive lot. Not only did every bathroom have a bidet, but the toilets had all sorts of electric gizmos that lifted the seat, heated the seat, sprayed deodorant and played music. Japan builds the Rolls-Royce of toilets.
Cooper Webb’s bike was sent over from California in a crate. As the team disassembled the crate, the Japanese fans flocked over to see the Factory Yamaha from the USA, while I was drawn in the opposite direction. I was in one-off parts heaven. The Factory Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki teams had parts on their bikes that I had never seen before. The Sugo track was a popular Japanese testing ground, much like Glen Helen is in America. Dunlop and Bridgestone had exotic tread patterns to be tested. Showa and Kayaba had unique concept shocks and forks on the bikes. The manufacturers themselves had factory one-off parts that had never seen the light of day on U.S. soil. You may think that the AMA Supercross series would have the best technology the market has to offer, but you need to remember that the AMA has a production rule. There is no such thing in Japan. Eat your heart out, Yanks.
WE JUST POINTED AT THE PICTURES OF WHAT WE WANTED SINCE WE COULDN’T READ THE WRITING. THEY SAY A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, BUT IT WASN’T UNTIL OUR STEAKS ARRIVED THAT WE FIGURED OUT THEY WEREN’T STEAKS AT ALL.
After the long day at the track, I was excited to get back to town because Hank was taking us to the best sushi place in the city. The petite restaurant had huge tanks filled with fish and other sea creatures. Our table was half the height of an American table, and since most of us were at least 6 feet tall, we struggled to get comfortable. We didn’t order off of the menu. The head chef made the decision for us. The appetizer was slivers of octopus. The entrees were a mix of fish, octopus and shellfish on a bed of rice. Asking for spicy mayo, Sriracha sauce, spicy tuna or California rolls would have been an insult. This wasn’t Americanized sushi; it was the real deal. I’m a sushi fanatic when I’m at home, but to describe the experience in a few words—it was hard to swallow; except for Hank, who loved everything they put in front of him. Hank promised to take us to a restaurant the next night that actually had a stove in the kitchen. Now I know why before I left for LAX Jody told me to take my clothes out of my suitcase and fill it up with American food.
The next day was practice and qualifying at Sugo. Japan is the stomping ground of eight-time Japanese National Champ Akira Narita. A celebrity in his home country, Akira drove up to the track in a candy-apple-red Lamborghini. This was the man whom Star Yamaha’s Bobby Regan wanted Cooper Webb to beat. With Bobby’s drive to win and witty sense of humor, you would never guess that he is well into his 70s. The fire that he has inside to win is like nothing I have ever seen before. He provides the perfect balance of fun and seriousness for his team. The Star Yamaha team had multiple meetings throughout each day to go over every aspect of the track, bike setup and even life itself. It was like a big family. After Cooper’s practice and qualifying, he sat second after a small crash. The fastest qualifier was Akira Narita. This was not acceptable on Bobby’s watch. He had a long meeting with team manager Steve Lamson and Cooper Webb. Bobby made sure no stone was unturned going into race day.
We were starving by the time we arrived at the hotel. Hank made reservations at what he said was the nicest steak restaurant in town. This time, we ordered off the menu. Well, in truth, we just pointed at the pictures of what we wanted since we couldn’t read the writing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but it wasn’t until our steaks arrived that we figured out they weren’t steaks at all. Mine was a big cooked tongue. Hank failed to mention that there were no steaks to be found in Sendai. Cow tongue was as close to steak as we were going to get. It kind of tasted like steak, just a bit chewier. Heck, at least it was cooked.
Race day was all business. Cooper moved through the pack fast in both motos, passing Akira within the first lap and leaving everyone in the dust. Cooper had over a 25-second lead when the checkers flew. The crowd cheered “Coo-ppaaa, Coo-ppaaa” (the Japanese accent has a hard time pronouncing “R’s”) when he stood on the top step of the podium. Goals were met, and Bobby was happy with the team and its effort. Next stop, the Yamaha factory in Hamamatsu, which is 400 miles south of Sendai. We piled into the bullet train, which only took four hours to get there at an average speed of 100 mph. On occasion, the train went close to 200 mph.
The following morning we were at Yamaha Motor headquarters. Our bus was met by all of the employees standing outside to greet us. Handshakes were exchanged before we migrated to the Yamaha Museum. I spent a couple of hours looking through the Yamaha memorabilia. They had everything from Doug Henry’s YRT400 to Valentino Rossi’s championship-winning MotoGP machines. Also in the museum were the F1 engines Yamaha had built, along with small drone helicopters that are used for many industrial and research purposes. I wasn’t allowed on the second leg of the tour because they were going to show the Star Yamaha team a top-secret bike…a street bike, at that. Since I was media, I was the odd man out. I could have told them that when I was at the KTM factory in Austria they showed me the then-secret Factory Editions four months before they were to be shown to the world, but I doubt they wanted to hear about how KTM does it.
Since I had time to kill, I explored the building and ended up in the Yamaha library where I pulled a book off the shelf that was titled, “Outliers: The Story of Success.” I started reading it, and, ironically, there was a chapter called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests.” The book stated that rice farming was 10 to 20 times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-sized cornfield. Rice paddies are very complicated systems that require careful planning and regular attention. They must be perfectly level, irrigated properly and worked on for eight hours a day, every day of the year. That is almost 3000 hours a year.
Now for the answer to the question from the first paragraph. Rice paddies are the reason that Japan has dominated the motorcycle industry, even though they gave the rest of the world a 20-year head start in motorcycle production. It’s all in the math. If the average European work week is 40 hours, that would amount to 2000 hours per year. With a 60-hour work week, that totals 3000 hours per year. The Japanese motorcycle industry was able to close the 20-year gap by working 135,000 hours more over a 45-year period. There is something to be said for hard work.