Bleak future for Japanese motorcycles?

Vintage Japanese motorcycles head to Tamworth

Since the 1970s, Japanese motorcycles have dominated the market, but times are tough and the four companies are changing their outlook for the future.

Even though Yamaha Motor had record profits and strong sales growth last year, Yamaha President Yoshihiro Hidaka says he is “pessimistic” about the future.

All motorcycle manufacturers face a bleak future where millennials are not interested in riding or even owning a vehicle.

Many industry gurus predict a future where people will lease vehicles or hire them per journey, rather than owning them.

Other hurdles are safety issues, emissions restrictions and policing.

All these factors are changing the types of motorcycles and scooters that will populate our showroom floors.

Transition phase

Honda Motorcycle president Chiaki Kato says the motorcycle business is entering a “transition phase” and says it is “crucial to improve quality rather than quantity”.

So what are some of the coming trends we will see from the four Japanese manufacturers?

For a start, midrange supersport motorcycles which dominated sales charts from the 1980s to 2000s are about to become extinct because of tougher emissions laws.

Kawasaki and Yamaha see a future of leaning multi-wheelers.

Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha are concentrating on self-balancing bikes and artificial intelligence.

Honda's self-balancing motorcycle - short
Honda’s self-balancing motorcycle

Honda and Suzuki are particular keen on automatic or semi-automatic models.

Although the Japanese are pessimistic about the future, they still seem to be at the forefront of research and development.

Production cuts

However, last year the only new model from Suzuki was the SV650X which was just a variation of the SV650.

All manufacturers are streamlining Japanese production and moving more plants off shore, particularly Thailand and India.

For example, Suzuki is combining its two Japanese factories into a new plant being built in Hamamatsu to build small-capacity motorcycles.

Yamaha is also cutting production of scooters and even sourcing small scooters from rival Honda.

The company will concentrate on more profitable mid to large scooters and believes demand is shifting to mini vehicles and electric bicycles.

26 Comments

  1. Hokey Pokey!
    Yup: the fat be in the fire!
    Motorcycle sales of big touring bikes, sports bikes aka Crotch Rockets and little bitty scooters and choppers too, are falling faster than the water table in
    Southern California!
    Us old “blisters” who started riding in the late 50’s_early 60’s . . are a dying breed ~ literally!
    “We’re either running 3- wheeled trikes,
    wheel chairs or motorized chairs & scooters?. . . . or fertilizing the grass in veteran’s cemeteries ?
    The millennial aren’t interested in trying to compete for space on our highways in gridlock traffic with distracted cagers playing on their cell phones or tablets or texting?
    They far safer on a bus, train, plane,ship or walking, than riding in todays traffic?
    Who can blame them? It’s flat scary out there!
    Then we have the” cost “of owner ship with the prices of new cruisers selling for as much or more than a descent new car? What’s that all about? Where’s the
    actual value in an 800_lbs motorcycle vs
    a 3,500 lbs car?
    No: the paradigm of the “freedom of the open road, economy and adventure” of riding motorcycles anymore is back there left as “road kill” in these modern times.
    Very sad!

  2. A hundred years ago maybe old people were saying, “What is wrong with young people today. They have no interest in learning horsemanship skills. They don’t want to enjoy the thrill of charging along on a powerful animal, the horse and rider working as one. They are only interested in puttering around on these new fangled cars and motorcycles. Where is the fun in that? These mechanical contraptions are clumsy, incapable of handling rugged terrain, and they are always breaking down. And you can only go as far as a tank of petrol will take you, whereas with a horse you just need to find some grass and water and you can keep going indefinitely. What is the world coming to?”

    My point is, things change and it seems that we have been caught up in a transition period. For the last few years I have been glad that I am older. It is partly because the world is facing increasing instability and security threats, but also because of what is happening to motorcycling. I started riding at the time when the Japanese motorcycles were taking over the world. It was the time when motorcycles changed from being unreliable ‘old plodders’ into exciting, reliable high performance machines. So I got to ride through the best times that motorcycling ever had to offer.

    I mostly feel sorry for the people who have motorcycle businesses (including those who own motorcycle websites) and are dependent on them for income. Many years before my time my family were saddlers, which was probably the equivalent of owning a motorcycle shop now. So I guess they experienced the heartache of having their business decline until they had to move on to other things. Anyway, I just thought I would throw another ‘angle’ into the enlightening mix of comments here. An old saying; – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for feeling sorry for me as a motorcycle website owner.
      But I’m not crying. I’m adapting to changing times like you say.
      The electric future looks exciting, if vastly different to what we both experienced.
      Cheers,
      Mark

  3. I’ve been riding for 52 years and have seen a lot of changes when it comes to two wheels. But last Sunday I noticed something which I hadn’t really taken in before. My usual coffee stop with other bikers resembled a club for older Aussies. Only a few and I mean a few younger guys were present but the greater majority by far were much older riders. With previous comments made here sure millennials are doing things completely out of the ordinary, but younger people have more issues than we ever did at their ages. Buying a house,or even renting is ridiculously high, short term contract work with no permanency of employment. Buying expensive bikes new and second hand, high cost of running and maintenance is not on their agenda. So where does the motorcycle industry go from here. Maybe better advertising with targeting transport to work rather than adventure riding into the wild west. If they[ the motorcycle industry] gets it right there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. They need to act quick and change the stereotype image who ride bikes.

    1. Many truths but dont think the level of difficulty has changed other than the comlpexities.Image has been a target of MC sales more so the last 20 years some of whic has been tarnished by the criminal activities of some. Motorcycling for me began in 1968 when a car for many could not be afforded. The bike was both the commuter and the weekend run to escape the city. Was able to take on better paying jobs due to the lower overheads of running a motorcycle. Most now leave the expensive to run and service MC at home now and drive to work. Am happy I was part of the change in motorcycling, the thoughts of electric MC’s ,,,,, well they are for someone else!!!

  4. I’m thinking about buying a used Kawasaki, so I wanted to check what recalls were outstanding & have a look at the owner’s manual to get an idea of the required servicing.
    No information whatsoever on Kawasaki Australia website.
    Kawasaki USA, the only Kawasaki site I could find for recalls, said when I submitted the VIN

    “We cannot determine if a recall is outstanding at this time. Please check back later or follow-up with your local Kawasaki dealer.”
    Couldn’t download an owner’s manual either.
    The Kawasaki dealer was no help & said I could do it online.

    This information is essential for any buyer, so obviously I’m not buying a used Kawasaki any more. If I can’t check to see recalls, how do I know if it’s safe?
    If people can’t access an owner’s manual online, how do they know when a service is due? Don’t Kawasaki want their bikes to be reliable? And safe?
    This is extremely basic customer service.

    I can only assume Kawasaki hate their customers.
    With an attitude like this, they’ll go broke.

  5. I endorse all the comments about learner configured bikes.

    I recently ferried a Yamaha 600 LMS and was quite afraid because of its limited throttle. Even thrashing the gearbox meant I was constantly threatened by manic impatient tin tops wanting to pass me on 100 KPH roads.

    I’ve been riding for half a century and this learner bike has been the only one which I’ve been quite unnerved on.

    Limiting learner top speed is a safer option than cutting down revs but realistically I concede that they’re linked.

  6. Just sad really, what a big pile of poo this world has become. . For now I will ride and ride and ride, because it’s what I love to do

  7. Millennials aren’t riding for a lot of reasons.

    Culturally Australia has a lot to get through if we want bikes to exist past 2030.

    Safety is one – everyone is telling them they will die 100 percent if they ride a motorbike. If everyone you care about thinks you’re going die riding, would you get on a bike?

    Licensing is getting harder and harder and harder – our government doesn’t want new riders – they just too much work to deal with. States are enforcing young people to have a car licence for a year before they can get their motorbike licence, once that’s done they’re forcing people on shitty learner bikes for 3 years. While I agree you don’t need teens on R1 super sports, but a triumph 900 isn’t exactly a speed demon, yet significantly better riding experience than any POS learner bike i’ve ever been forced to ride. I can’t think of how awful it would be to be stuck on a learner bike for three years – why do they all have shitty throttles you have to pin in every gear to get any power from them and clutch levers you need to let all the way out to get power to the wheels????

    Cost – Bikes are expensive – and millennials just aren’t getting a fair wage like boomers had at the same age – wages have barely increased since the 80’s after you account for inflation, so people were just better off in the 80’s than they are now. On top of that there are increased financial pressures now, such as skyrocketing rents and requirements to own mobile phones, have internet, insurance etc etc. Yes, boomers face these pressures now too, but they’ve had 30 years to work on making money and advancing in their careers.

    Big purchases are also scary in a time of 0 loyalty from employers. Bit scary spending 15k on a motorbike when you might get made redundant anytime and you now own a vehicle that’s not needed or practical to someone without an income. Hell these prospects make any big purchase terrifying.

    Self driving vehicles – the number one reason to be pessimistic about the future of motorcycles. What government in their right mind is going to allow motorcycles in a future of cars who navigate autonomously. People who don’t ride would be upset at the injustice of being passed by a motorcycle ‘not following’ the automation rules and so on and so forth.

    1. Great commentary, along with some of the others.
      I agree, motorcycles seem to be actively discriminated against by our handlers, i have a number of suspicions why.
      I am particularly interested in the rise of cyclists to the position of “pampered VIP” at the transport round table (i ride cycles too but i dont understand their privileged status).
      I have several motorcycles and dont see why they all need to be continousouly insured and registered, this certainly prevents me buying a couple more which is my desire. I have no car, as i can hire one as required (unlike the difficulty and cost off hiring a motorcycle i would like to ride).

      I have a daughter a uni-student with a full motorcycle and car licence. Her cheap motorcycle now sits unregistered as it costs 4x more than a cheap car to register/insure. So now she chooses to clog the roads in a box, good on you Government and Profiteering insurance corporations you have discouraged another young motorcyclist who could have helped to reduce road congestion!
      Please take a trip to Vietnam and see how a country running on two wheels can function. Try replacing each motorcycle there with one person in a car and examine your traffic flows.

      I feel the death knells of motorcycling, but i choose to ride to my death, or as close to it as possible.

      In the great words of ACDC “Ride On”!

  8. People sadly misunderstand Millennials, the best part is, it’s the generations that produced them doing all the bashing – they are the future and the future is bleak for everyone – when inflation out pace’s income as it has been for decades people are forced into a position to not spend. Millennials can travel the world and be away for months with a few hundred dollars in their pockets and no job, they have learned to live within their means – they will reshape the financial future by living within their means. Not just motorcycles but every industries. Blaming millennials is a cop out all the stupid people jump on the band wagon, when the simple fact is if you don’t have the money you cant spend it.

    1. Dreamin
      Millenials consume like theres no tomorrow and have this narcotized view that they can freeload in the world created by their parents with no consequence. They can fix everything with snapchat, crowdfunding and change.org

      1. Oh no the poor misunderstood Millennials. How can they be the future when they are “traveling the world and be away for months with a few hundred dollars”? This sounds like it’s impossible to get ahead in this world, when it’s not. It’s ok if they don’t like motorcycles for whatever reason, but don’t spin this into a tale of doom and gloom for these snowflakes.

        It’s not necessarily financial constraints that have pulled this generation out of the motorcycle world. I bought my 11 year old son a Yamaha TTR 110 so we could have some quality father-son time. I figured he and his friends would be drooling over the prospect of riding this new machine….but I was wrong. The bike has sat in the garage for 2 years. It’s just not a “thing” like it was back in my day (early 80’s).

        1. hahaha think about if they don’t spend money – they will change the future – I have six millennials at home that are doing fantastic – this leads me to believe it’s the tree the apple fell from – hey if your not going to use that bike can I have it – my 11 year old would love it….

  9. There appears to be a convergence of forces here. The Japanese exported into advanced economies where fuel was reasonably cheap and accessible, and consumers were looking for more than simple utility. These were the first of the baby-boomers and they demanded performance and reliability, which the Japanese absolutely nailed. The fortunes of the Japanese manufacturers thenceforth largely followed the demands of the western baby-boomers who are now reaching their twilight years; moreover, fuel is more expensive, and emissions regulations harsh.

    The youngsters today are much less interested. They have new technology, smart phones, computers, VR and other gadgets to keep them amused; couple that with a risk-averse culture, excessive regulation and heavy-handed enforcement and we see far fewer young people riding. When I was a young man, you could get on your Z900, find somewhere a bit remote, and give it some. I still remember the excitement that those blasts would bring: even just looking at the bike would give you a tingling anticipation. Today that 75hp would seem a bit lame, plus there are cameras everywhere, and highway patrol on even the loneliest roads. State of the art performance bikes today are impressive machines that can deliver the rider 200hp, but what use are they on the road if you are going to be hit with infringements should you ever rev it out in first gear? It is like being married to a beautiful woman but never taking her to the bedroom!

    The new motorcycle markets are in the developing economies of India and China, but these markets demand cheaper, more utilitarian motorcycles – for now anyway. Here in the west, the future points to electric, especially commuter bikes that can give you an easy run into work through traffic. But these are priced way too high at the moment; that said, the first manufacturer to deliver a reasonably-priced, fast-charging electric bike is going to smash it! IMO.

  10. Motorcycling traditionally goes through a cycle where sales boom and then go into decline. We are seeing the next dip in the cycle as sales start to decline at the end of the boom which really began at the end of the 90’s as the Baby Boomer bubble moved through and created a boom in sales by middle age adults. Most middle age Baby Boomers are fast approaching retirement and many are well past retirement. Most have gone through their “return to riding” phase and are moving onto other interests, having met their desire to own a motorcycle.

    Manufacturers now need to reposition themselves and identify where a motorcycle fits into everyday life. A window of opportunity is opening for them as Cities become ever more congested. This opportunity demands that they focus their attention on convincing punters that motorcycles are a safe and viable alternative to the car, and cheaper than taking Public Transport.

    Motorcycles have for to long been promoted as an adventurous activity, only for the enthusiast or purist dreamers. The reality is – motorcycles are the best way to commute, relaxing and far less stressful. The manufacturer who taps that market will be the ultimate winner at the end of the day.

    1. http://www.autobics.com/2017/11/royal-enfield-interceptor-continental-gt-650-twin-engine-eicma-2017/2018-royal-enfield-interceptor-650-twin-ravishing-red-pr/
      “Motorcycles have for to long been promoted as an adventurous activity, only for the enthusiast or purist dreamers. The reality is – motorcycles are the best way to commute, relaxing and far less stressful. The manufacturer who taps that market will be the ultimate winner at the end of the day”
      …….the above link is your answer- Kudo’s To RE !

      1. Andre, I had been thinking along the same lines as you. Maybe Royal Enfield will be the one manufacturer that survives, at least, as a motorcycle manufacturer. While all of the other manufacturers are evolving their bikes into computers on wheels, and adding extra wheels to solve the balance issue, RE is the only one who shows that they intend to “keep it real.” Maybe heading back to basics is the answer.

  11. Motorcycle crisis is much bigger than initially thought. And definitely longer.
    There are so many obstacles for new riders to buy motorcycles. From the fact that they are “dangerous” to the emissions, to the style of the bike, etc etc etc.

    Manufacturers should focus on making quality useful motrbikes that users will have a good reason to get.

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