For Japan’s Mon­key Bikes, a swan song


In­side the maze of fish­mon­gers and sushi shops of Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji Mar­ket, buy­ers and tourists are as­sailed by more than just the smell of fresh seafood. There’s also the in­ces­sant buzzing.

Start­ing be­fore dawn, the world’s big­gest fish mar­ket re­sounds with the noise of scoot­ers zip­ping away with de­liv­er­ies for high-end restau­rants in nearby Ginza. It’s a sound par­tic­u­lar to the tiny 50cc en­gine that pow­ers them — the same type of en­gine that Honda Mo­tor Co. was founded on, and that helped pro­pel the com­pany into the big­gest mo­tor­cy­cle maker in the world.

Tsuk­iji de­pends on these eas­ily ma­neu­ver­able scoot­ers, yet their ex­is­tence is threat­ened by stricter emis­sions reg­u­la­tions set for 2020. Honda, Yamaha Mo­tor

Co. and Suzuki Mo­tor Corp. are re­tir­ing a host of 50cc mod­els this year and warn­ing they may phase them out al­to­gether as the spi­ral­ing costs of com­pli­ance make them an un­prof­itable part of Japan’s es­ti­mated $1.5 bil­lion mo­tor­cy­cle mar­ket.

This year’s ca­su­al­ties in­clude Honda’s iconic Z-Se­ries mini-mo­tor­cy­cles — col­lo­qui­ally known as “Mon­key Bikes” be­cause of the im­age sug­gested by rid­ers atop the small ve­hi­cles. Af­ter 50 years, the last mod­els will roll off assem­bly lines in Au­gust.

“Some­how, we man­aged to clear the reg­u­la­tions up to now, but beyond this, tech­no­log­i­cally we’ve reached the limit of what we can do,” said No­ri­aki Abe, Honda’s chief of­fi­cer for mo­tor­cy­cle op­er­a­tions. “We can no longer make a prod­uct that cus­tomers can be sat­is­fied with.”

The de­cline of the 50cc mo­tor­bike has been a pro­tracted one in Japan, es­sen­tially the only coun­try where such ve­hi­cles are still sold. That means pre­cious fi­nan­cial re­sources poured into prod­ucts aimed at a mar­ket that since has mi­grated to bat­tery-as­sisted bi­cy­cles and com­pact cars.

Sales in Japan plunged 94 percent last year to 162,130 units from a peak of about 2.8 mil­lion in 1982, ac­cord­ing to the Japan Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. About 60 percent of the 50cc bikes sold last year were Hon­das, with Yamaha and Suzuki ac­count­ing for the rest.

The fi­nal nudge to­ward ex­tinc­tion co­in­cides with the im­po­si­tion of tougher en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. Japan, like other na­tions around the globe, has adopted Euro­pean Union ve­hi­cle-emis­sions stan­dards as the ba­sis of its own.

Those reg­u­la­tions started solely as lim­its on pol­lu­tants in ex­haust, but the fourth ver­sion — com­ing into full force this fall — re­quires on-board, self­di­ag­nos­tic sys­tems to make sure en­gines run cleanly for at least 12,427 miles. That contributed to the purge of mod­els such as Honda’s Z-Se­ries and Lit­tle Cub.

The fifth it­er­a­tion, ef­fec­tive in 2020, ex­tends that re­quire­ment to the life of the ve­hi­cle. That should halve emis­sions within 20 years yet add as much as $130 to the cost of each ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study for the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. That’s about 10 percent of the sticker price for some Ja­panese mod­els.

“To­ward 2020, prod­uct devel­op­ment is go­ing to be ex­tremely tough,” Yamaha Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Hiroyuki Yanagi said. “In­stru­ment con­trols will be­come more com­plex, and costs will go up.”

Japan’s En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry said it dis­cussed the new emis­sions stan­dards with car and mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, and con­cluded it didn’t make sense to adopt dif­fer­ent lo­cal stan­dards be­cause of the global na­ture of the in­dus­try.

The num­ber of cu­bic cen­time­ters in an en­gine’s des­ig­na­tion refers to the dis­place­ment vol­ume of its cylin­ders. The higher the num­ber, the larger and more pow­er­ful the en­gine.

“100cc or 50cc bikes are prob­a­bly go­ing to dis­ap­pear,” Osamu Suzuki, the com­pany’s 87-year-old chair­man, said dur­ing the May earn­ings pre­sen­ta­tion. “125cc or 150cc will prob­a­bly be­come the lower limit for small ve­hi­cles.”

The 50cc mo­tor­bike is an icon in Ja­panese mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ing. Honda was founded in 1948 on the suc­cess of the two-stroke, 50cc A-Type aux­il­iary bicycle en­gine, nick­named the “Bata-Bata” for the sound it made.

That was fol­lowed a decade later by what would be­come the most-pro­duced mo­tor ve­hi­cle in his­tory: the Su­per Cub. Set to sur­pass the 100 mil­lio­nunit mile­stone this year, it orig­i­nally sold with a four-stroke, 50cc en­gine, but now is avail­able with a va­ri­ety of en­gine sizes in more than 160 coun­tries. The 50cc ver­sion re­mains only in Japan.

“Japan is Gala­pa­gos-like with this en­gine size,” said Masayoshi Iwasaki, editor of the mag­a­zine “Man­u­fac­tur­ers can’t af­ford to keep pour­ing money into devel­op­ment.”

Among the al­ter­na­tives mo­tor­cy­cle mak­ers are pur­su­ing is elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. Yamaha and Suzuki al­ready have 50cc-class bat­tery-elec­tric mopeds on the mar­ket, and Honda aims to fol­low next year with a busi­nes­sori­ented EV scooter. In Septem­ber, Honda and Yamaha will test elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cles in a Tokyo sub­urb, with an eye to­ward a mo­tor­cy­cle-shar­ing pro­gram.

The gloomy fu­ture of the 50cc mo­tor­bike doesn’t go over well in Tsuk­iji, where they sit on curbs out­side prac­ti­cally ev­ery store­front.

In front of the whole­sale shop he’s run for three decades, Hiroyuki Douko un­loads pro­duce from one of his four Hon­das — all of them flatbe­d­e­quipped, three-wheeled lo­cal odd­i­ties called the Gyro Up.

He’s packed it so high he’s had to wedge two boxes of dried mack­erel into the space where his feet should go.

The 63-year-old says other bikes are too big, and he doesn’t trust the range of elec­tric scoot­ers.

“For me, 50cc is the per­fect size,” he says. “These bikes are in­dis­pens­able.”

Bloomberg News/AKIO KON

A man rides a Honda Su­per Cub mo­tor­cy­cle at Tsuk­iji Mar­ket in Tokyo in June. Honda, Yamaha Mo­tor Co. and Suzuki Mo­tor Corp. are re­tir­ing most of their 50cc scooter mod­els this year and warn­ing they may phase them out al­to­gether as en­vi­ron­men­tal com­pli­ance costs make them un­prof­itable.

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