Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beauty riding...

From Tokyo's metropolis online magazine by Justin Gardiner
"In Japan, female motorcyclists had long been perceived as bad-girl gang members, but largely thanks to a couple of recent animated TV series and soap operas, women on bikes are now distinctly kakoii (cool). That doesn't mean that your average OL has been beating a path to the local Honda dealership, though. Sales of bikes remain flat in the current recession, and motorcycling continues to be a male-dominated scene.

But never ones to discount a shift in perception, Japan's biking big four-Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki-are taking pains to get women saddled up and out on the road. They're doing this in part by wedding the intangible freedom of motorcycling with the nuts-and-bolts how-tos of riding schools. By showing women that they, too, can be part of the biking experience, the big four are slowly luring them out of designer retail shops and into motorcycle showrooms.

The downturn in Japan's domestic motorcycle industry is in part owing to, ironically enough, the country's postwar climb to prosperity. Anyone who's traveled around Southeast Asia has noticed that most families' initial motorized transport is the moped. As economic situations improve, small-bike owners tend to trade up to bigger ones, then from two wheels to four. This has been the case in Japan for some time now, too, with car sales increasing steadily at the expense of motorcycles, particularly bigger models. In an attempt to reverse this trend, bike builders have marketed their more powerful machines as leisure items rather than as everyday transportation, targeting single young men and, to a lesser extent, retirees.

Recently, however, the marketing gurus realized that they've been missing out on a segment of society that spends a large proportion of their high disposable income on leisure: the so-called parasite singles, those twenty something Japanese females still living with mom and pop. And with biking becoming less and less taboo for women, the manufacturers are making every effort to put a softer face on the whole biking experience.

They're doing this by taking advantage of what was long considered an impediment to their business: Japan's unique method of classifying motorcycles and their riders. Scooters and mopeds up to 50cc can be operated by those with a regular driver's license, chuu-gata (up to 400cc) bike riders must pass an extremely tricky test, while oo-gata machines are restricted to the select few willing to invest even more time and money to obtain the elite license.

Realizing that bureaucracy is standing in the way of sales of larger-engine (and larger-profit-margin) bikes, makers are opening their own riding schools to help provide the compulsory hours of training that license hopefuls must otherwise spend at the traditional, horrendously expensive driving schools/test centers-operations that have a financial incentive to fail would be riders.

This new breed of school also offers brush-up courses for "paper drivers" who have lost the confidence to ride Japan's crowded streets, as well as the chance for chuu-gata or even moped license holders to try out bigger bikes on private land and race tracks. As the manufacturer-run centers have a vested interest in enticing people onto bigger and better bikes, they are very competitively priced and interested in their students' success. And, increasingly, they're enticing women by appealing to their sense of sisterhood.

One such school is Honda's Beauty Riding, run by a group of bike professionals called Team Mari. Ex-125cc racer Mari Iigata, along with her sister Tomoko and other female championship motorcycle racers, hold bimonthly courses for women throughout the year at Honda's two racing circuits, Motegi and Suzuka.

But domestic bike makers aren't the only ones to attempt to tap into the female riders' market. As part of their "Big Bike Beginners" campaign-and at the behest of their European headquarters where similar programs have been successful-Ducati Japan have followed Honda's lead by starting the Women's Riding School.

This year's course was held in a large Nagano ski area's parking lot, where 20 beginners got their first taste of riding 400cc Ducati Monsters, and some more experienced riders got tips on cornering and balance from former World Championship rider Shunji Yatsushiro. Demonstrations and practice-weaving through cones had their merit, but going on high-speed slalom runs perched on the champ's pillion seat had the greatest effect on the ladies' confidence by clearly demonstrating just how low a bike can safely be "dropped" when cornering at speed.

Yatsushiro may have gotten a little carried away at times, scraping the mufflers on both sides of the machine on the asphalt as he and his students cornered, but Ducati Japan General Manger Mirko Bordiga wasn't worried. "These girls will have caught the Ducati bug by now. Honda have a huge advantage in the first bike market here, as almost all official driving schools use CB400s and people tend to stick with what they're used to. But Monsters are both lighter and more responsive than their competitors, making them easier and more fun to ride. We've also lowered the seat for the Japanese market, to make the bike more suitable for shorter women."

Test rider (and Honda CB400 and Yamaha X400 owner) Emika Tada seemed to agree, judging by the smile on her face when she reluctantly returned the test bike to Ducati after a run to Fuji and back. It's a smile Japan's bike salesmen hope to mirror as they greet young women walking into their showrooms."

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