Number of Bicycles Produced in Japan (1945 – 1955)

This is part three of “Films of 1949” series. (Part 1 and 2)

On July 1, 1949, Japan Industrial Standard was enacted. It became the foundation of Japanese Industrial Revolution of late 20th century, defining standard of quality in all industrial products.

The production of bicycles saw triple-digit growth in late 40’s. This statistics is a fine example of economic resurrection from the ashes. First of all, the capacity for any industrial production in 1945 was decimal. There was a large room to grow. Also, demand for bicycles was paramount, being relatively (though marginally) affordable for many Japanese.

In Ozu’s “Late Spring (晩春)”, there is a scene of breezy bicycle ride along the coast line of Shichiri-ga-Hama. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and Hattori (Jun Usami) are riding their bicycles at full speed, while the camera captures a couple of artifacts of American Occupation along the road. The ride ends with the two parked bicycles on the beach, leading to the scene of suggestive conversation between Noriko and Hattori.

The bicycle ride in “Late Spring” echoes with the similar scene in “Green Mountains (青い山脈)”, a film by Tadashi Imai released two months earlier. Based on the popular serial novel on Asahi newspaper in 1947, it deals with the story of a young schoolgirl (played by Yoko Sugi) and her alleged love letter causing a debate on “decency” in the rural town. “Old” people consider the amorous letter indecent and the girl should be expelled from high school, while a young teacher with strong will of democratic ideas (played by Setsuko Hara) adamantly defends her. Of course, liberation from the moldy web of old morality triumphs in the end. Near the end of the film, three sets of couples, Sugi/Ikebe, Wakayama/Izu and Hara/Ryuzaki, all young and energetic, ride their bicycles through the long road along the coast line (1). While the popular song of the same title is on soundtrack, the ride is full of carefree spirit and of ecstatic speed. Again, this ride leads to the conversation on the beach among these characters. But this time, exchange between Hara-Ryuzaki couple is not at all suggestive nor ambiguous. It is straight marriage proposal, ending with Hara’s acceptance.

Late Spring

The difference may sharply contrast Ozu’s quiet obsession against Imai’s loud ode to humanity. But these scenes bore the similar characteristics; they feel forced, with no words with no end and a bit suffocating to audience today; as if to show these bicycle rides were something out of ordinary. In all probability, they were.

History of women and bicycle in Japan is quite unique. Introduced from Europe in 19th century, bicycles slowly gained popularity among Japanese population over the period of industrialization and modernization. First cycling clubs were established in Meiji era and domestic production began around the same time. However, vast majority of users were men. In fact, we need to wait until the turn of century to see actual record of a Japanese woman riding a bicycle. In 1900, Tamaki Miura, a renowned Soprano, was seen riding a bicycle to commute to Music School of Ueno from her home. This caused quite a stir. Spectators gathered around every morning to see a young woman commanding a bicycle. Her dashing kimono also attracted male gazes. First women’s cycling club was also formed in the same year, Miura being its member.

A Woman on a Bicycle (1905) (Bicycle Culture Center of Japan)

For many years, up until 1940’s, it was considered indecent and improper for a woman to ride a bicycle. An ideal wife and mother should mind business at home. Women have no business outside, let alone cranking pedals to go somewhere for chat. That was the social norm at the time. There was “scientific” theory to support this antagonism. Riding bicycle was harmful to womb. It was believed that action of lower body during a ride would cause inflammation in uterus and unwanted stimulus to ovaries. Although it was pure nonsense and many doctors wrote articles in newspapers and magazines trying to debunk this pseudoscience, the idea persisted among public until the end of 1920’s.

There were a few exceptions. Girls of high society, daughters of distinguished names of nobles and rich end of spectrum, were considered outside of this social norm. Tamaki Miura was one of them. Another exception was Geisha, especially the highest class of them. It is rather interesting to observe that these two opposite ends of spectrum in female population were in the same group in this regard.

It was a gradual process, albeit steadily, that the use of bicycle spread among women’s population. Some young teenage girls picked up bicycles for their method of commuting; many complained abusive behavior, sometimes physical, they encountered along the way. Mostly male, these bystanders or spectators yelled epithets or threw objects at young girls, to let them know “their place in society”. This phenomenon persisted well into Showa era, as you can witness in Keisuke Kinoshita’s “Twenty Four Eyes”. People in the island treat the new teacher in the school as if she were a demon, just because she rides a bicycle.

If there was any profession that was exempt from such criticism, that was a midwife. Since it was always an emergency, a bicycle would be the best tool of choice for midwives. Men could not argue against it. Men are useless in these matters anyway and have no say, even though they yell at girls on the road. Very popular among midwives, bicycles started to gain its place among women.

The war in thirties and forties changed everything. Because a large part of male population was drafted into military, good wives and clever mothers were asked, then ordered, to join manufacturing forces in local factories. They built guns, bombs, planes and variety of assortments to support their husbands, brothers and sons in the war zone. Along this process, their ‘place’ in society underwent significant transformation. It was not that they were free from chores at home or from traditional bondage of family, but it proved they could perform duties required by society, as men had done. Also, the miserable state of everyday life, missing fathers and husbands in families demanded women to find paying jobs to support their children. As a result, the process equalized the gender unbalance, albeit temporarily, created by modernization of Japanese society in 19th century.

Mail Delivery by Women (1943) (Bicycle Culture Center of Japan)

Thus, bicycles were widely adapted to various aspects of women’s activities. Their lives required mobility, speed and agileness, to which a bicycle was the most logical solution. Finally, they were able to ride bicycles without being hissed in public. For example, women were allowed to take jobs of mail delivery on bicycles in 1940 (in another words, the job had not been available to women up until then). Statistics show this change; number of people capable of riding a bicycle sorted in age groups. There is a huge drop in percentage among women above 40 years old. This number is from 1956 census, so, the divide had been at around 30 years of age in 1945. Assuming that most people learn how to ride bicycle by their teens, maybe by their twenties, the divide (girls and women started to learn how to ride a bicycle) occurred at around late 1930s to 40s.

Cinema is quite keen on such a change and always ready to show it through the eyes of audience. “Hanako-san”, a musical film by Masahiro Makino in 1943, contains a jolly bicycle ride by Hanako-san (Yukiko Todoroki), on the song “Going Shopping on a Bicycle”. It is one of the most refreshingly charming scenes in Japanese cinema during war years, and it is an indication of bicycle finally being recognized as a tool of everyday house-making.

These scenes in “Late Spring” and “Green Mountains” are quite significant in two ways; First, people ride their bicycles for fun. It is not for work, mail delivery nor shopping. They enjoy their ride. The notion of recreational cycling must have been quite refreshing to audience in 1949 (2). Another aspect to note is that the scenes present both men and women in equal terms. The scenes truly recognize a woman’s place in society is not subjugate to a man’s.

Green Mountains

It is very tempting to assume that Ozu might have made somewhat cynical visual commentary on the scene in the “The Green Mountains”, considering their similarities in structure, locations and narrative flow. Bicycle ride along a coast, parking bikes on sand, and talks about romance. Their release dates seems to indicate otherwise (3), but the difference in outcome makes us ponder what “Late Spring” is all about. In “The Green Mountains”, everything is spelled out verbatim; “Will you marry me?”, “I will, if you treat me as an individual”. Good bye, old family system, women are now independent and must be treated accordingly in marriage. That’s it, no message can be more explicit. Then, how about Noriko and Hattori in “Late Spring”? Noriko is insinuating something by talking about jealousy and radish. What is it she tries to convey? Probably, at this point, she knows Hattori was in the process of marriage arrangement. So, is she accusing Hattori being a “dirty old man”, that he goes out with a woman whom he won’t marry? Or is it likely that she is doing her last-ditch attempt of her own version of marriage proposal, however absurd it maybe? Maybe a mixture of those undefined emotions entangled her tongues, made her bubble some nonsense about radish (4).

Many critics at the time hailed “The Green Mountains” as triumph of democratic movement in postwar Japanese cinema. It was, in a sense, the most imprudent statement on gender liberalism, with an entertaining narrative (5). But the reality of ordinary people was closer to Ozu’s somber landscape of marriage, family and individual. Though democratic policy was in place and the new Constitution was enacted, the ordinary life of ordinary people did not undergo such a tremendous reformation as quickly. It took another decade or two to fully accept the marriage on their own terms.


 Green Mountains


(1) Actual location in the film was Shimoda in Izu peninsula.

(2) Late Spring was No.1 in Kine-Jun annual poll of Japanese cinema, and Green Mountains No.2.

(3) In the original novel for the film, written by Yojiro Ishizaka, the marriage proposal takes place in the Numazaki’s room.

(4) I heard about this relationship between slices of radish pickles and jealousy.


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