What's with all the Mamachari hate?

Byron Kidd
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?

Mamachari Bicycle with 2 Kids, Tokyo

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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  1. I find it unbelievable that in this day and age so many people detest bicycles and aim their vitriol at a humble tool that prior to the second world war was the cheapest form of transport for literally whole generations.Now years later we are spoiled for choice but the basic bicycle is all some people need , especially mums in Japan, so why would you complain about the introduction of Mamacharis into Europe.Why ! because they are the cheapest form of transport, much cheaper than their European counterparts, give us a choice please.

  2. I think the problem is that mamacharis are really used for short trips that would be walked in most other cities. Tokyo people can be a bit precious when it comes to actually walking- which of course is why cities exist. Many of these bicycles are in disrepair, which is evidence that the owner is quite happy to walk if it breaks down or is confiscated. Byron can be a bit massianic about cycling in Tokyo, but in fact many Tokyo cyclists are just selfish gits and the mamachari is emblematic of that, which explains the negative response in my opinion. These bicylces are quaint in the country side but hazards in a city as congested at Tokyo.

    1. What would really be hazardous would be if all of Tokyo's mamachari riders suddenly decided to use a car to run errands, and to shuttle kids as they do in many cities.

      People who choose a bicycle for transportion in a city like Tokyo are IMV acting selflessly and deserve praise not criticism.

  3. I gotta disagree with you. There's a lot of design features about mamachari that need to be fixed. We need to get rid of the basket, and focus on improving low-cost rack options. We need to ditch a lot of the heavy designs, and focus on lightweight ones. Ditch the wheels and build lighter alloy high-pressure road wheels. We need to extend the crank to a useable length. TokyoBike is trying to do this, and they're doing a pretty good job, hence their success.

    1. The basket is one of the most useful accessories on the mamachari, take that away and the usefulness of the mamachari is reduced greatly. If the basket was replaced by a rear rack you'd need panniers which increase the width of the bicycle making parking problematic. Also if the panniers need to constantly put on and taken off the bike then the convenience factor of the mamachari is lost.

      The beauty of the mamachari a the moment is you go downstairs, flick open the lock and you're good to go. No need to add accessories like a light and panniers, no need to remember an ankle strap. Its extremely convenient for short neighbourhood shopping trips.

      I agree that they're heavy, but reducing weight means increasing the cost and as the average trip length of the mamachari rider is under 2km there is really no pressing need to make them lighter.

      TokyoBike do make a fine bicycle, but their target market is different than the mamachari. Someone who buys a TokyoBike is most likely making trips longer than 2km thus need the lighter frame and wheel set. But without baskets and child seats and at the current price their bicycles will not appeal to the mamachari section of the market.

  4. I liked your Japan Today article and I completely agree about mamachari being the perfect city bike. I think some of the negative comments could have been avoided if you had used a photo of a mamachari without child seats. I feel like they are the much more common type of mamachari used in Japan anyway. About your "average trip is under 2km" comments, are there official stats somewhere supporting this? I'm curious as I imagined the average ride would be longer.

    1. The photo shows how a mamachari is typically used in Japan and I see nothing wrong with that configuration nor with the fact that neither the mother or the children were wearing helmets. The fact that it drew so many negative comments just highlights the ignorance of the audience.

      As for he average trip length beng under 2km, its a number I've been usin for years now based on observation and my own usage of our mamachari. But if you're looking for something a little more scientific please check the following link:


    2. Yes I was hoping for statistics based on studies and that was really interesting. It also confirmed my thoughts that the majority of mamachari users in the Tokyo area are not parents ferrying their kids around town. Thanks for sharing the link.

  5. Commenters probably remember stories of people falling off these bikes because of a car or else and child or mom or both died. You are free to not wear a helmet and crack your head open on the way to supermarket lol I want one but I am not confident enough , scared to lose balance, lack of sidewalks and steep steeeep roads all around myhouse and future Tokyo's house. But I am still looking around for THE bike that would be perfect for me I love the idea of the taga but it is huge for Japan..

  6. I have to confess I'm a little negative on the Mamachari. Its cheapness encourages reckless behavior. Yes, you can leave it outside, but it begins to rust almost instantly. Japanese kids really don't respect their Mamacharis and can't wait to abandon them for a real car. I think this attitude also explains their anti-social behavior, like texting while riding, salmoning or running into pedestrians on sidewalks. Okay, I admit the riders of those expensive fixies also display dangerous riding styles, but I know where they learned it first. Many Mamachari riders ride with the seats all the way down which reminds me of a monkey riding on a circus bike. Another strange riding behavior that is probably brought about by learning to ride on a Mamachari is the inability to use a derailleur gear. I swear I have never seen a teenager downshift his or her new Mamachari with six speeds for the hill by my house. Instead, they stand on their pedals in the highest gear. A real annoying side effect of the Mamachari industry is that most bicycle stores where I live (okay, I'm not in Tokyo. I live in the "sticks") only sell Mamacharis, haven't ever seen a decent bicycle, and refuse to repair it if it needs anything more than a flat tire. I took my German bicycle to the neighborhood bike shop because it needed a new bottom bracket (for chrissake, it's fifteen years old!). The Bridgestone dealer looked at my bike and said, "I can't repair those," and walked away. I guess I can't blame his lack of confidence, since most Mamacharis are thrown away when they get a flat tire. Selling a new Mamachari is more fun than fixing an old one. Okay, I confess I had a Mamachari that I rescued from the trash (go ahead, report me to the police). I lovingly cleaned it, replaced the tires, front brake cable and pads (all 100 Yen store stuff) and even found a guy who welded two seatposts together (a small one inside a big one) so that I didn't look like a monkey on a circus bike. But... I yearned for my German bicycle that was in storage back in Europe, and had my friend send it to me by mail (35 Euros, I think). Then, with a tear or two in my eye, I gave my Mamachari (with the old monkey seatpost) to my teenage stepdaughter who proceeded to abuse it. She stood on the pedals instead downshifting, she road around in the dark without the light on, and she never locked it with the result one day she with a smile announced it had been stolen. For many months I scoured the bicycle racks at schools, dormitories and stores, hoping to find my old Mamachari, but to no avail. I am convinced it is now doing hard labor in some North Korean gulag... I... I... I want my Mamachari back!!!!!

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