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Follow the money

Big Ben, RidingSun's esteemed first (and, to date, only) commenter has suggested that the main reason for Japan's soon-to-be-relaxed ban on riding two-up on the expressway is to keep bosozoku -- Japan's hooligan biker gangs -- from carrying passengers onto these fast, high-traffic roads.

Now, Big Ben has been riding around Japan a lot longer than I have, and I assume he knows what he's talking about here. He points out that the requirements that riders be at least 20 years old and have held their license for at least three years are designed to keep out bosozoku, many of whom are in their teens. But a few aspects of this theory are confusing:

(1) Why are bosozoku only a problem on the expressways if they are carrying passengers? Reckless riders are a threat to everyone whether they have a passenger or not.

(2) Why take away a right from law-abiding people when your intention is to punish criminals? (This is the same problem I have with gun control laws, however well-intentioned.)

(3) Tellingly, Ben writes that the purpose of the ban is to stop the bosozoku from riding two-up on the expressway legally. In other words, they are going to do it whether it is legal or not. By definition, laws do not deter outlaws. (Yep, you guessed it -- this is another reason why I oppose gun control.)

I hunted around and found another possible rationale for the tandem riding ban: It's a trade restriction masquerading as a safety regulation.

Jeff Bleustein, the Chairman and CEO of Harley Davidson, calls the tandem ban a "non-tarriff barrier" hurting Harley's ability to penetrate the Japanese market. He commented,

[P]eople who tend to ride together are people who ride larger motorcycles -- families, husbands and wives, guys and gals who want to go someplace together. So the highways are open to young kids riding super high performance motorcycles, but more responsible riding is limited to the back roads and city streets.
Interestingly, Bleustein suggests that the tandem ban is more likely to hit responsible Harley riders than reckless bosozoku on souped-up crotch rockets.

Bleustein also claims that Japan's notorious system of requiring people to get a first license for bikes up to 400cc and then a second license to ride bigger machines, is another attempt to keep H-D out of the market.

Not only is obtaining the extra license time-consuming and expensive, Bleustein suggests the license test itself is much tougher than necessary. Referring in particular to the part of the test where the would-be license holder has to pilot the motorcycle along a narrow metal beam without falling off, he says:
Obviously it was couched as a safety requirement but its real purpose was to keep Harley-Davidson motorcycles out of the market.
I think there are a few problems with Bleustein's claims.

First of all, the balance-beam test is not all that hard, and at any rate, it's also part of the license test for a smaller bike (under 400cc). You just have to stay on the beam a little longer in the big-bike test -- that is, you have to ride more slowly, which takes more balance. But it's still not all that hard.

Second, Harleys are selling like hotcakes in Japan, so if the goal was to keep H-D out, the Japanese bureaucracy isn't doing a particularly good job.

However, Harley's Japan sales would probably be even higher if there were no need to get a second license just to ride one. And if you could take a passenger with you on the expressways, there would probably be more demand for big bikes like a Harley, which can be overkill on a crowded city street. And if Harley sold more bikes in Japan, it might be able to lower prices there, which can run you up to double what you'd pay in the States.

So, it seems plausible to me that what we are seeing with the tandem ban is one of the last surviving examples of the good ol' days of shameless Japanese protectionism, when foreign companies were told their skis wouldn't work on Japanese snow, and their beef couldn't be digested by Japanese intestines.

I guess the 80's really are back.

This person claims today's bosozoku prefer to ride Harleys, not sportbikes. If so, it's just another reason why Harleys are the most-stolen bikes in Japan.


Big Ben said...

I think it's safe to say that guy doesn't know what he's talking about. I've seen plenty of Bosozoku over the years, and they all ride Japanese bikes. I can see how someone who knows nothing about motorcycles might think some of the heavily customized ones are Harleys because of the high handlebars and sissybars, but from the sound it's obvious that they're two-stroke low-displacement bikes. Bosozoku hate Harley riders and vice versa.

Also, the police believe that almost all the HDs stolen in Japan are stolen by professionals and sold overseas.

As far as the original reasons for the 2-up law, I'm only repeating what I've been told, so I may be misinformed, but I know that the last time repealing the law was up for a vote, Bosozoku were given as one of the official reasons for keeping the law. (I agree that this makes no sense, since they're usually violating two or three other laws at the same time.)

I think the HD guy is doing some serious spinning, but I'm not gonna complain because HD's money and HD's lobbying is largely responsible for repealing this law and for several major positive changes in the motorcycle laws recently.
Until the mid-90s, it was nearly impossible to get an over-400cc license, and this truly was a stealth trade restriction, since practically no non-Japanese manufacturers make bikes under 400cc. Pressure from the US and German governments and lots of money from HD and BMW and others helped change the law to make it possible to get licenses at driving schools, and HD's sales here jumped several hundred percent as a result.

So I think he's dishonest corporate lobbyist scum, but he's doing it for a good cause;)



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