Ever heard of a ‘mamachari’?

I hadn’t, until I read this article in The Truth About Cars.

Millions of Japanese were stranded in downtown Tokyo on March 11 afternoon after the 8.9-magnitude earthquake closed down the sprawling mass transit system. “Suddenly, bikes became a lot more attractive to many people,” says the Nikkei. In a matter of minutes, bicycle stores were empty.

In the aftermath, saving power replaced Buddhism and Shinto as a religion in Japan. Salary-men were urged to ditch their blue suit and tie for “super cool biz” (short sleeves and open collars). Thermostats of the A/C were set to barely bearable, the nation perspired for a noble cause, and the bike race was on.

In short order, bikes turned into big business. Downtown office buildings opened high-tech full-service indoor bicycle parking operations: Racks for the bikes, showers, lockers. The monthly fees are steep: They range from $200 to $300 a month per bike. That approaches Manhattan fees – for a car. But in Tokyo, I get a free shower and don’t have to tip Gonzalez. I can also buy a bike for the same price. A really cool bike.

The real craze in Tokyo is not the Roppongi daytraders that switched his Porsche for a Miyata (the bicycle.) The REAL craze in Japan is mamachari.

That’s a Japanese portmanteau of “mama” (mama) and “charinko” (bicycle): It denotes a utility bike with chainguard, fenders, rack, skirt guard, dynamo lights, baskets, and child carriers. It used to be to conveyance of choice of a housewife with two small children and shopping bags. Helmets? Who needs them?

Now, mamachari have been co-opted by the super-cool set. There are weekly mamachari meets, mamachari races, and of course, gobs of mamachari blogs.

There’s more at the link.

Of course, I don’t find the concept at all unfamiliar. Anyone who’s spent as much time in the Third World as I have will know the amazingly inventive ways in which bicycles are used to carry anything and everything. (It’s not always safe, nor is it always reliable: but if it can be balanced on a bicycle, odds are someone has!) For those who haven’t had the benefit (?) of Third World exposure, here are a few examples.

(Yes, those are all genuine Third World bicycles with Third World loads; and no, none of the shots was staged or faked – they’re all real!)

Most mamacharis are probably in far superior condition overall to the average Third World bicycle, and don’t carry loads as heavy; but they’re apparently almost as ubiquitous. I’m surprised to read about the cultural enthusiasm that appears to have surrounded the mamachari. It’s not just a means of transport; it’s become a status symbol, as in “My chari is more mama than yours!” (or words to that effect).

They’re apparently very well equipped for the urban lifestyle. Tokyo By Bike describes them in greater detail.

The mamachari is a cultural icon, it’s the Japanese equivalent of the family station wagon. It’s the family workhorse used on shopping runs, for riding to the local station, taking the kids to school or picking them up from sports practice. Without it families around the country would be in a right pickle.

The defining features include a top tube bent low that is easy to step over, a shopping basket on the front, a luggage rack on the back, mudguards, chain guards, dynamo lights, an integrated lock, a bell and a hefty rear stand that keeps the bike stable and upright when parked.

Oh, I forgot one of the most defining features of the mamachari, which is brakes that go “SCREEEEEEEEEEEECH!” when even slightly feathered, startling everyone within earshot.

After purchasing a mamachari, the upgrade of choice is a child seat. These can be mounted on the rear luggage rack or behind/between/in front of the handlebars. It’s not unusual for a mamachari to sport two child seats, and on occasion you’ll spot one with three! When the government implemented a ban recently on carrying two children on a mamachari mothers across Japan campaigned against the ruling and the government was forced to back down.

. . .

When buying a bicycle most Japanese don’t consider anything other than a mamachari and initially I found this odd because when I think of bicycles I think recreation, mountain biking, commuting, racing, or for getting air off the top of a set of stairs. But in Japan I realized I’m in the minority, as even your average Japanese male purchases a bike for its utility, for making short trips to the station with a briefcase in the basket and carrying groceries home from the supermarket etc.

In a country of 130 million people 85% own a bicycle. Who’d have guessed that the majority use their bikes for practical purposes rather than jumping gaps?

. . .

For those of you saying “Well thats fine but you can’t race a mamachari can you?” I’d like to direct your attention to the Mamachari Endurance Race held annually at the Tokachi International Speedway which attracts hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators all of whom enjoy the festival like atmosphere. Suffice to say its all just a little fun with few serious racers, but plenty of great costumes.

Again, more at the link. Here’s a video clip about the beast.

I must confess, I find the concept of an old-fashioned bicycle dominating urban transport in one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated economies to be more than a little refreshing!



  1. My wife has done similar here in Canada. She has an electric assist Schwinn bike. She put a child set in front of her for our 2 year old and mounted a trail-a-bike attachment on the back for our 5 year old. It makes for a long and impressive rig. She uses it for trips to the store and taking the kids to school. Our older daughter rides along side on her own bike.

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