America and Japan are very different countries, with different cultures and styles, but on top of that there are the basic physical differences. The Japanese motorcycle industry really got going after WWII, when they needed light, reliable machines to get around a country that had been heavily damaged by the war. The American industry, and Harley-Davidson specifically, has been plugging along since the dawn of motorized transportation, building big torquey machines great for eating up the miles.
There is a vast ocean between the West Coast of the US and Japan, and there’s practically a 5,500-mile gap between the way that Americans and the Japanese think about motorcycles, not only how they ride, but also how to build them. Japanese riders often don’t own a car and ride everyday, no matter the weather, and everywhere, while the majority of Americans are recreational weekend riders. There is a whole slate of small practical bikes from the big four that they don’t bother shipping to America because we only care about the fastest and the most powerful.
Different Riding Philosophies
In the United States, there are few people who view the motorcycle as an every day form of transportation. Based on sales and demographics, most Americans buy motorcycles just for recreation or for the image; nothing cries “America” more than riding a Harley-Davidson, the best-selling motorcycle brand in the US. There is no doubt that riding is more fun that driving a car, but the inherent dangers and weather make riding daily less attractive. Also, without legalizing lane-splitting in most states, bikes don’t come with any traffic advantage, and though bikes get better fuel economy, $3 a gallon gasoline makes that less of an issue.
And remember, the weather in much of the country just isn’t conducive to riding, particularly anywhere it rains or with any regularity, or up north where it is cold and frozen for months out of the year. No surprise that California is America’s motorcycle capital!
In Japan, like many other Asian countries, motorcycles are indeed considered legitimate transportation. A motorcycle or scooter is easier to park in the densely packed cities, and far more affordable than a car; fuel is more than twice as expensive, and the taxes and permit fees are much lower too. Japan is a small country and her population density is nearly ten times higher than here in the US, so space is at a premium and traffic is always tight. Interestingly, though Japan has weather just as varied as ours, the advantages make up for the discomfort of getting wet or being cold when the weather turn bad.
The Japanese tiered license system means bikes of 50cc or less are easy to own and ride, and between 50 and 400cc are slightly harder and more expensive. Bikes larger than 400cc are much more expensive to own, and require a special license to ride, which is why so many cool Japanese bikes are 400cc or less (and many of them don’t come to the USA).
American vs Japanese Bikes
Of course, then there are the differences in the motorcycles themselves. True, there have been sport bikes made in America, and cruisers and touring bikes made in Japan, and off road bikes come from all over, but both countries have a style that they are known for. America is big, relaxed cruisers and touring bikes that are like RVs on two wheels. Japan is small displacement bikes for around town, and cutting edge sport bikes that rev to 20,000 rpm.
Harley-Davidson may be iconic and America’s best-selling brand, but that hasn’t stopped Japanese makers from making convincing cruisers and touring bikes as well. In fact, Honda’s Gold Wing is thought by many to be the the bike that created the modern full dress touring class. Harley’s cruisers are prefect for the straight roads and sweeping curves that are typical of the American countryside. The Electra Glide and other big “baggers” are as comfortable as a Lazy-boy chair, and eat up miles like a Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet. Both feature big V-twin motors that make adequate power, but make tons of torque from idle to redline, so you barely have to think about the clutch and shifter.
Honda routinely sells more than 15 million bikes a year around the world, and the little Honda Super Cub is the most produced vehicle in history. These bikes, and other small bore scooters and motorcycles, place a premium on low cost of ownership and reliable transportation. But then, there are the Japanese sportbikes, like the Suzuki GSX-R and Kawasaki Ninja. These bikes are made for racing and mountain roads, and tie directly into national pride and proving that Japan can take on the world’s manufacturers, be they German, Italian, English or American.
Harley-Davidson, and Polaris/Indian, seem to have decided to concentrate on the big bore street bike market these days, so if you are interested in a dirt bike you most likely are going to be buying Japanese. However, both Indian and Harley are active in dirt track racing, they just don’t make any dirt friendly street bikes, yet. Japanese (and European) dual sport bikes are hugely popular in urban areas for their light weight and maneuverability; for many riders being able to ride in the dirt is just a bonus feature.
It Comes Down To You
In the end, whether you start shopping for an American bike or a Japanese bike (or Korean, or Taiwanese, or British, or German, etc) is really going to come down to how you plan on riding. If you plan on riding every day, in a tight urban environment, you probably don’t want a big Harley or Indian, though both do sell smaller bikes that are more city friendly. If you are looking to play in the dirt, chances are you want a dirt bike from Asia, or possibly Germany or Austria. But if you are looking to hit the open road on long weekends, or for a week at a time, a big cruiser or touring bike is the way to go. Or if you want to look cool as you cruise on the weekends, you just can’t beat a Harley-Davidson.