August 16, 2013

What's with all the Mamachari hate?

Last month an article I wrote about an enterprising bicycle store in London that is introducing Britons to the Japanese Mamachari was published on the popular Japan Today website.

The establishment of Mamachari Bicycles London had me excited as I've been promoting "Japanese city cycling style" overseas for years. I've been trying to convince people that mamachari bicycles are perfect for short trips around town, doing the shopping and running the children to kindergarten etc. I believe that manufactures overseas haven't been catering to this market, preferring instead to target sport or hobby cyclists, and when they do release a bicycle for the city cyclist it is almost always terribly overpriced for a piece of technology that has essentially remained the same for the last 100 years.

Now, let me say politely that Japan Today has a vocal and strongly opinionated set of core users who loudly proclaim their expert opinions on topics from immigration, nuclear disasters, politics to gardening tools and the best way to unblock a drain, they've got it all expertly covered. Given everyone there have such strong opinions and previous articles there about cycling had sparked intense, fiery debate I expected the same for my article.  Boy was I mistaken.

The article gleaned just 20 comments which was disappointing, but even more disappointing is that the vast majority (almost all!)  of those were negative. What is with all the mamachari hate?  Why can't people see the benefits of a cheap bicycle designed for daily duties? Am I failing in my mission?

Here are a few of the reoccurring themes in the comments.

OMG, that woman is cycling with two children on her bicycle, they're gonna die!

By far most of the negative comments surrounded the picture that accompanied the article, a woman cycling with two children seated front and back. Scandalous behaviour. How can she cycle with two kids! That's plain dangerous! She should be reported for child abuse! And my favourite comment: "A fine picture as to why these bikes should be banned" Banned? Is that the answer to everything in your society?

Mothers are reliant on the mamachari for daily transport and ferrying children around is perfectly normal behaviour that few people (vocal and strongly opinionated foreigners aside) consider dangerous.  Bicycles are constantly being re-designed with longer wheelbases, lower centres of gravity with safer child seats and seat belts with carrying children in mind.

This is how we roll in Japan, you're free to do differently if you choose, just don't try to push your "safety" standards on us. We enjoy the freedom to choose, and to judge for ourselves what we consider safe or not.  Its not just Japan, you'll find that cycling with children is considered perfectly healthy and normal in such bicycle rich countries as Denmark and the Netherlands.

I believe few of the commenter's are parents, and even less have experienced the enjoyment of sharing a bicycle ride with their child.

OMG where are the helmets!

Bicycle helmets are not compulsory in Japan, but police recommend that children under 13 years of age wear helmets. Recently bicycle manufacturers include a complimentary child's helmet on mamachari's sold with a child seat in an effort to increase helmet usage among children. As a result you see more passengers wearing helmets today than you did just a few years ago.

Once again in Japan we are free to choose when to wear a helmet and when not to.  Personally if I'm racing or mountain biking then I will certainly wear a helmet, but when riding the mamachari to the supermarket or the kids to the park I do not believe a helmet is necessary. I decide when I will and will not because I'm an adult and can make that decision for myself, I don't need it made for me.

Mamachari are cheap, heavy and just crap.

Mamachari can indeed be cheap, that is one of their primary features. They're usually parked outside in the elements for long periods in tight conditions with thousands of other bicycles which results in them getting banged about, exactly the conditions you do not want to subject your most expensive finely tuned road bicycle to.

Yes they're heavy, I prefer the term sturdy.  Obviously bicycles at such a cheap price point aren't going to be lightweights, but when you consider that the primary function of the mamachari is running errands around the local neighbourhood with few trips over 2km in length then is there really a need for the bicycle to be lightweight?  Besides after you add some groceries, a child or two and climb on yourself you'll be pushing over 100kg anyway.

Even in Japan few people commute long distances on mamachari, its primary purpose is getting around the local neighbourhood at relatively low speed therefore weight is not a big issue.

British cyclists are accustomed to high-quality high-tech bicycles, like the Moulton, Brompton and Pashley.

And British motorists are accustomed to the Bently, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar. Honestly if everyone in Britain can spare the cash for a Moulton I'm moving there tomorrow!

I agree that Moulton, Brompton and Pashley make some beautiful bicycles, but we're talking about different bicycles for different purposes, different prices for different incomes. Can you carry your groceries and 2 kids on an Brompton? Oh sorry I forgot that's dangerous and should be banned by law in your world.

Get them off the sidewalks!

Not a criticism of the mamachari itself, but of mamachari riders.  In Japan it is legal to ride on shared use sidewalks which, due to poor enforcement by the police, has been culturally interpreted to mean its legal to ride on all sidewalks which it clearly isn't.

But sadly Japanese roads are not ready for Japanese cyclists, nor are Japanese cyclists ready for Japanese roads, and until this situation is rectified get used to sharing your space with cyclists.

Those are some of the main themes from the comments which, when I read them, really discouraged me. Why can't people see the benefit of a cheap sturdy bicycle designed for ferrying about kids and running errands around the local neighbourhood? Then I had a major realisation:

These are the exact same negative opinions of the mamachari that I held a decade ago.

Before getting married and having children I was a Lycra clad, helmet wearing, cycling fanatic.  Spending every spare moment on the weekend cycling in the mountains around Tokyo, travelling to races, touring the country by bike, and spending every spare coin I had on newer lighter parts for both my road and mountain bikes.

I didn't understand the mamachari either. I considered them cheap, heavy, rubbish. Weirdly designed and hard to ride with their low seats, odd handlebar shapes and upright cycling position. I could not understand why anyone would ride them, nor could I understand why everyone rode on the sidewalks when it was clearly faster to ride on the roads. It turned out that every negative comment made on the article I'd made myself before learning to love the mamachari.

After marriage and children of course I kept my road and mountain bikes, which I still ride regularly, but we also bought a family mamachari for shopping trips and running the kids to kindergarten and about the neighbourhood. Even now my children are too big to ride as passengers if I'm making a grocery run or am taking the kids to the park I ride the cheap, heavy, crap mamachari because its the best tool for the job for a number of reasons.

  • Its parked downstairs (in the elements) already
  • It has a built in lock so its easy to unlock without getting dirty
  • It has a built in dynamo light so I don't have to remember to bring one downstairs with me
  • It has chain and mudguards that ensure a clean ride no matter what I wear
  • It has huge carrying capacity for the groceries, play equipment, or passengers
  • It has a wide kickstand so it does not topple over when I'm loading it up
  • If it gets stolen while I'm shopping (unlikely) I can get another without breaking the bank!

So after some initial discouragement at all the negative comments the article received I realised that the commenter's have yet to experience the mamachari, and that their thinking was identical to mine before I discovered the charm of the mamachari bicycle.  Therefore it seems apparent that the only way to learn to appreciate what the mamachari has to offer is by giving it a try yourself.

The mamachari is a great tool for the right job and I encourage everyone to get over their mamachari hate and give it a go. Take your mamachari shopping, take your kids for a ride, haul all their gear to the park, and you'll discover instantly the usefulness and versatility of Japan's mamachari bicycles.


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