American vs. Japanese Motorcycles

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

Friendly group of bikersIn 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!

Motorcycle and Scooter in Japanese TrafficIn 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.

Electra Glide with American FlagHarley-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.


Sportbikes at SuzukaHonda 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.



woman on dual sport bikeHarley-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.

12 Responses

  1. Sherry Gajos says:

    I liked what you said about how Harley-Davidson is concentrating on the big bore street bike market these days. My husband wants a new motorcycle and we’re debating on the type and brand. Thank you for the information about Harley being active in dirt track racing, he wants to get deeper into that.

  2. lance seagle says:

    I am a marine and more patriotic than most people would understand today…. I did my shopping and decided on a gold wings that had the same year, miles and it was HALF the price of a road glide, granted I NEVER wanted a harley Davidson growing up, I thought they were obnoxious loud and a very selfish machine… I can hear my stereo at highway speeds NOT MY MUFFLERS… and my wife LOVES THE comfort of the back seat so it’s all in what t you want.. of course I LOVE 40 miles to the gallon and the fact that it will corner sharper and lower than a Harley… haven’t found a Harley yet that could out drag race me either, yet they still turn there nose up at me!!! I’m happier with the gold wings… NO REGRETS…..

    • bryan wood says:

      Of course, this piece is very general, and all touring bikes are made to eat up the miles in comfort no matter which company made them. A lot of people fail to realize that most Goldwings, depending on the year, are in fact made in America in the Honda factory in Ohio – from the 1981 model year until 2009 all Goldwings sold in the US were made in the USA. After that the plant shifted to building more Honda and Accura cars, and Goldwings production was shifted back to Japan.

  3. David R Cuff says:

    I love my country the United States of America.
    However, we can be very lazy and prideful, and we don’t always make good products that last, and we seem to always overcharge. I will never own a Harley Davidson. They are very expensive and extremely inferior. The Japanese motorcycles have proven time and time again to be the better bike.

  4. David Davis says:

    I have owned them all, almost all Harley Davidson have their bikes, used or new, way over priced, but if you want to pay big dollars for problems, go for it. I’m going to enjoy my Kawasaki ZX14, my Concours.
    Ride safe

  5. David Davis says:

    I have owned them all,all most Harley Davidson have their bikes used or new way over priced, but if you want to pay big dollars for problems,, go for it, I’m going to enjoy my ZX14, & my Concours, Ride safe

    • Vin says:

      I have owned Suzuki Honda Yamaha and Harley. My Harley has never given me any kind of issue that you described and I have done many miles on it.. I have had more problems with my Suzuki and Yamaha than any of the other bikes. A lot of these stereotypes come from just hatred of the brand.

      • SSteve says:

        Harley knows they have a captive customer base so they don’t improve their bikes. I bought a 2016 Road Glide Ultra, with just 16,000 miles I’ve had to replace the lifters, compensator and now the bike has neutral rattle which Harley claims is normal.
        When the bike heats up and the transmission is in neutral sounds like a can of bolts rattling. Never again Indian or Goldwing next. No brand loyalty unless it’s made right

  6. Josh says:

    I’ve owned Hondas and Harleys. I love all bikes but fact is, I’m usually on the aide of the road waiting for a trailer with every Harley I’ve rode. Eventually it becomes frustrating. Still love them, but for me being able to go on or off road is a huge plus. I live in the mountains. I’m leaning toward a scrambler.

  7. Ed Davis says:

    All you talked about was Harley-Davidson, they’re passe. Indian is the future Harley is past. And most of their parts are made in Asia.
    As for flat track Harley Davidson hasn’t won one race in over 2 years, it’s been Indian Scout every race.
    Harley-Davidson been creating and using the most technology of turning gas into noise without the advent of torque or horsepower since 1903.

  8. NMK says:

    As an owner of both an american and japanese bike, i can tell you without a doubt that the japanese build the best bikes… just like they build the best cars. My 2009 suzuki sfv650 has 33,000 miles on it. It has never had any service other than oil changes, brakes, tires and chain replacements. The 2017 victory octane is my american bike. I only have 7000 miles ob that bike, but so far nothing but oil changes and drive belt adjustment. Both if which are easily done by anyone with minimal mechanical skills. I personally dont see the appeal of a harley. They are just now finally starting to catch up to modern technology that other manufacturers have been using for decades. Their pricing is insane. I can buy a new entry level lexus sedan for less money than many bikes they sell. They are slow, handle poorly, and overpriced. The best bike with a harley badge on it wasnt even built by them, the Vrod was actually 100% built by porsche. People buy them blindly because they want to live up to some imaginary status symbol. When i see one coming down the road all i see is somebody who paid too much for a bike that is inferior to my victory in every way. But….. to each their own.

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