Skip to Main Contents

Motorcycling's Monoliths Chat #2

Speaking on the Today and Tomorrow of Motorcycles to Rekindle the Bike Boom

Select Language
Speaking on the Today and Tomorrow of Bikes to Rekindle the Motorcycle Boom

Are motorcycles really booming right now? If so, what is the underlying cause? And what is the way forward? Yamaha and Honda-monoliths of the industry-put together a special collaborative project to sit down and discuss the today and tomorrow of motorcycles. The second part of this project brings together the motorcycle development chiefs of the two companies. They shared their respective development philosophies, corporate cultures, and historical backgrounds, while engaging in a meaningful discussion about what aspects of the job must remain steadfast in their shared future as motorcycle manufacturers.

NISHIDA, Toyoshi (right)
Executive Officer
Chief General Manager of PF Model Unit and Senior General Manager of Motor Sports Section, PF Model Unit, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd.

Since joining the company in 1989, Nishida has handled sportbike development and is currently the chief of Yamaha Motor’s motorcycle development departments. A real motorcycle enthusiast in his private time, his stable includes a TRACER 9GT and a YPJ-MT Pro, Yamaha’s flagship eMTB.

TSUKAMOTO, Hikaru (left)
Operating Executive
Head of Monozukuri Supervisory Unit, and Chief Officer in Charge of Asaka of Monozukuri Supervisory Unit, Motorcycle and Power Products Operations, Honda Motor Co., Ltd.,
Director of Honda R&D Co., Ltd.

Joining Honda Motor in 1994, he was assigned to the testing team, where he worked on motorcycle handling tests and was later made the head of development for all Honda’s off-road models. He was then appointed the first general manager of the development departments in Kumamoto, and then spent three years stationed at Honda’s R&D base in Thailand. He then returned to the Honda R&D Design Center in Asaka, where he currently oversees the development, production, and purchasing of Honda motorcycles and power products.

It’s said we’re seeing a reemergence of the motorcycle boom. Do either of you feel that we’re on the cusp of a new “age of the motorcycle?”

Tsukamoto I’m not sure on whether or not we can call it a “motorcycle boom” yet, but I can say that we’re seeing younger people start to really discover the fun there is to be had on a motorcycle.

Nishida I also don’t really feel that we’re seeing a motorcycle boom. I say that because I personally experienced Japan’s motorcycle boom in the late ‘80s, and compared to that, it’s a stretch to say that what’s happening now constitutes a “boom.”

Tsukamoto I’m actually not old enough to have had firsthand experience of that boom [laughs].

Nishida I do, however, feel that younger people today are riding bikes more as a means for expressing themselves. Going out somewhere on one or showing that their motorcycle is a part of who they are has become quite popular.

Tsukamoto I get the feeling that there are more and more people who look at the profiles of people making bike-related posts on social media and then feel that they want to try it for themselves.

Nishida I agree. I feel that people who use bikes in their social media posts are already more active in expressing their own lifestyles. It’s less about trying to “jump on what’s trending” and more about us now living in an era where people actively express themselves.

In the motorcycle boom years of the late ‘80s, the bikes are what had the spotlight, but now, they’re being used in positive ways as a means of self-expression and I hope that will continue.

Tsukamoto It also doesn’t feel like a temporary spike that you have with a boom. I feel that the positive aspects of motorcycling are gaining a more lasting awareness. Customers are viewing them in a more positive light, and I think that holds true with the self-expression you mentioned, but also when they’re used as a tool for camping or other activities.

Nishida Women in particular have no qualms about actively using motorcycles to express themselves, and that has helped give motorcycles a cleaner image overall. It makes it easier for most to follow them online and think, “I want to try being like her.”

Tsukamoto The rise in women riders might also be thanks to the boom in outdoor recreation. We now see more women who like fishing or mountain climbing using motorcycles as their preferred way to get places.

We develop products to make our customers’ lives better. This is an unchanging vision based on the values of our founder, Soichiro Honda.
- Tsukamoto

Do you think the mindset of motorcyclists has changed? What kind of initiatives are you doing in order to draw in new riders?

Nishida I think more people are looking for good ways to use motorcycles to express themselves while being well aware of the risks involved in riding one. They have a slightly more level-headed and favorable impression of them.

Tsukamoto I think in the past, for many people, the act of riding a motorcycle itself was the goal, and I used to be that way myself before. But now, we’re seeing more people choosing a motorcycle as a tool to do something. Whether it’s going fishing, hiking in the mountains, or camping, they hold the value that riding a motorcycle is a way to feel closer to nature.

Nishida With newcomers to riding, I don’t think all that much has changed. That’s to say, the desire to “go where you want to go when you want to go” hasn’t changed much. Public transportation isn’t necessarily around everywhere you go, and if you want real freedom to go places, it comes down to needing a car or motorcycle. And when faced with that, young people who have a place they want to go to on their own often choose a motorcycle. But the price of motorcycles has been on the rise for a while now, and that has definitely made riding a harder hobby to pick up. We as manufacturers do shoulder some of the responsibility for this, however.

Tsukamoto Prices have definitely had a big impact. That goes for bigger displacement bikes, of course, but I think the higher prices of the middleweight bikes we hope younger people will choose to ride has also had some effect.

Nishida If we had only somehow managed to keep the door wide open for them to join the sport, I’m sure many more would have discovered the incredibly fun world of motorcycles. With Honda taking the lead, manufacturers have made a concerted effort in recent years to bring out more motorcycles that are reasonably priced, fun to customize, and easy to start riding on. I think all the right prerequisites have been laid out to make it easier for people to get into motorcycling.

Tsukamoto With the average age of motorcyclists in Japan continuing to go up at an alarming rate, we had a lot of discussions at Honda about what we needed to do to get younger people interested in riding. Bringing down prices is always there, of course, but also lowering seat heights to make a bike easier to ride or searching for ways to make a bike light and easy to maneuver around, and so on.

Nishida That’s great to hear.

Tsukamoto The result of all that in Japan was the Rebel 250. We’ve also enjoyed a wide and positive response from customers with the CT125 Hunter Cub. And then there’s the Dax 125. We’re about to really get started on delivering them, but it’s already been well received by the market. In most cases with bikes like these, customers are using them as tools for enjoying all sorts of activities and we are looking to further expand our lineup of such models in the future.

Nishida The MT-25 and YZF-R25 are Yamaha’s popular entry-level bikes, and compared to your Rebel 250 and CT125, you can tell how heavily they lean towards the sporty side of things! [laughs] With the MT Series, we also have the bigger MT-07 and MT-09 and the YZF-R6, R7, and R1 for the R-Series. We bring updates to the models in each lineup emphasizing their respective lineages or DNA for customers to enjoy.

“Sporty” was mentioned just now, but is there a difference in how Honda and Yamaha interpret “sportiness” in your respective corporate cultures?

Tsukamoto That’s what we refer to as the “FUN area” at Honda. Now that I think about it, I don’t think Yamaha uses the word “fun” for that. For us, we categorize our models as being in the “FUN area” or the “Commuter area.” What lies in between the two are offerings based on commuter model platforms, but geared more towards fun, like the CT125 Hunter Cub I just mentioned, for example.

Nishida This is a very interesting topic because it’s where you begin to see the different ideologies or “colors” of our two companies. Yamaha uses “sports” to distinguish bikes outside commuter models. Even our department names do this, with the “Sports Vehicle Development Division” and “Commuter Vehicle Development Division.” The fact that we don’t communicate using the word “fun” so openly might reflect one difference between our corporate culture and Honda’s.

I get the feeling that “FUN” for Honda is more about the fun the customer feels and emphasizes the more literal meaning of the word. For us, when we say “sports,” it’s likely due to the culture established from our roots with Nippon Gakki (today’s Yamaha Corporation).

Let’s say you buy a musical instrument for the first time. You’re not going to immediately play it like a pro; you practice a lot and finally become able to play it well. Once that happens, playing music itself becomes more fun for you and then you want a nicer instrument. Once you have one, you practice even more so you can master it and produce even finer melodies.

We discuss sportbikes in the same manner at Yamaha Motor. Once you’ve bought one, you practice riding it, and as you get better, it becomes even more fun to ride. Each bike you ride encourages your own growth as a rider, and that process itself is how we view “sports” at Yamaha.

Tsukamoto I see, so Yamaha Motor’s culture is to take a much broader view of motorcycling itself.

Nishida Internally, we go so far as to call it “training recreationalized.” [laughs]

Tsukamoto That’s fascinating. For us, the Honda Company Principle or our Mission Statement has “for worldwide customer satisfaction” in it. Based on that, our 2030 Vision is to “serve people worldwide with the joy of expanding their life’s potential.” The root of that lies in the values of our founder, Soichiro Honda, and as a company, our vision is to bring greater convenience and fulfillment to our customers’ lives. In other words, it builds on the original idea behind the Honda Cub.

Sportbikes occupy a somewhat unique position among all that, in that they’re something we want our customers to really enjoy and that makes them undeniably part of our “FUN areas.” But even with all the market research we’ve done in many different countries, we just can’t beat Yamaha when it comes to outright sportiness or the cool factor. You guys are heavyweights, especially with sportiness! [laughs]

Nishida Once we’ve decided we’re going sporty with something, we swing for the fences! [laughs] But, wanting to contribute to a more fulfilling life for people is the same at Yamaha. Commuter vehicles make up 90% of our business, after all. As a customer rides their Yamaha commuter model every day, we still want them to feel enriching and heart-revving moments as much as possible. But the root of it all still lies in our desire to contribute to more fulfilling lives for people. However, when we enter the sport realm of motorcycling, I feel we have a very firm belief that there is always an element of training there. As you practice, you get better, and the better you get, the more you enjoy the sportbike world until you’re hooked and completely engrossed in it.

Tsukamoto In that sense, there’s a clear concept in place then for every bike from Yamaha, whether it’s a sportbike or a commuter model, and it’s perceivable even if you don’t work at Yamaha. Honda may have a slightly broader interpretation regarding that. With the MT-25 and YZF-R25 that came up earlier, I have to say that your ability to offer them at affordable prices while still managing to make them so sporty conjures up quite a bit of envy at Honda. [laughs] The concepts are well fleshed out as well, and I’ll admit, I look up to the MT Series! [laughs] It’s popular both in and outside Japan, especially the MT-07 and MT-09, and then there’s the Tracer Series as well. To be honest, I really want to build bikes like that some day, and we’re taking the liberty of using them as our benchmarks. I said this earlier, but again, I feel the series’ concept is really clear.

Nishida Thank you. Forgive me for tooting my own horn here, but I do feel that the MT-07 and MT-09 have the credentials and success now to indeed serve as benchmarks. But if we can go back to what we were talking about before, if asking whether they are about “fun” or “sport,” these bikes do fall more towards the latter.

Take the MT-07 for example. It’s got a middleweight 700cc engine, is in a price range that isn’t too demanding, and so on, so it’s not the most exotic of bikes out there, but at the same time, it still requires a certain level of respect or skill from the rider.

Riding a bike well requires certain inputs at the controls, and when you get those just right, the ride becomes even more fun and the bike is built to do that. When you practice and get better on it, you feel that sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. It really is “training recreationalized” like that.

The first MT-09 may have gone rather overboard with that. I’m glad to hear you say you see MT models as benchmarks, but at the same time, hearing that made me realize that with our “training recreationalized” approach, it has settled into what it is today having first swung this way or that way with our models over time.

Tsukamoto I’ve also actually ridden the first MT-09 and felt it’s a bike that pushes you to challenge yourself. I even wondered if the bike itself is choosing which customer gets to ride it. [laughs] I think the YZF-R1 also has some traits similar to that. These are meant to inspire a desire to challenge yourself and that goal or message from the people building these bikes comes through very clearly.

If it were us at Honda, “Yeah, but still...” would come up in the discussion and mark where the similarities end. We just end up smoothing out rough edges here and there, and I even wonder every now and then if we need to lay out something concrete and just make up our minds! [laughs]

As you practice, you get better, and the better you get, the more fun it is until you’re hooked and completely engrossed in it. With sportbikes, there has to be joy in experiencing your own personal growth as a rider.
- Nishida

A woman who had only just started riding motorcycles once asked me, “Why are Yamaha bikes all so beautiful?” From that, one can gather that Yamaha motorcycles seem cool even among younger riders. Where does that come from?

Nishida I’m glad to hear it!

Tsukamoto I’d also love to hear the reason for that! [laughs]

Nishida That’s a tough question, actually. For one, I can say it’s not something that came about naturally from our corporate DNA or traditions. What I mean by that is, everything isn’t simply cool right from the start of a model’s development project.

With early-stage sketches and 3D models, there are always areas where the team thinks it simply won’t be cool, and even during discussions, there are things that just don’t feel right. It often comes down to how strong or passionate the project members feel about it. Heck, I’m the one in charge of things and have zero qualms about saying “nope” to something that doesn’t feel right to me. [laughs] If I feel a team isn’t dedicated enough about something in particular, I’ll even tell them to do it all over.

To summarize, I think it’s not something we’ve always had at Yamaha, but rather something “one-off” produced each time by the project team responsible for developing a model.

On the other hand, Honda got a massive hit with the Rebel 250. Why do you think that is?

Tsukamoto The reason is probably different from customers who choose a Yamaha because they’re cool, [laughs] but I think the main reason people buy a Rebel is because the low seat height, light weight, and so on make it really easy to ride. The affordable price is also another reason we believe the Rebel has proven popular.

Nishida This is something I think the Rebel shares with the GB350, but even though it has a high quality fit and finish, the fact that there are still some things left “incomplete” actually becomes an appeal point. It’s built in a way that entices you to customize it. Plus, there are custom bike influencers on social media and their followers often end up wanting to do the kind of custom work they see, so there is that complementary effect as well.

Us on the other hand, yes, we’re all about sportbikes, [laughs] but this one time, I was in the U.S. to do some market research while pondering what we would offer besides sportbikes, and I saw a whole bunch of Rebel 500s lined up in front of a dealership. It was a little hard for me to believe that this was the bike that was selling in the U.S. [laughs]

Some time after that, the Rebel 250 started to take off in popularity here in Japan as well. They’re just flying off the dealership floors! [laughs] And like you said, I also think how easy they are to ride and the affordable price are big factors, but I also think its looks and readiness for customization are additional contributors.

Tsukamoto Well, just as you said, we were very fastidious about nailing the stylishness and high-quality feel with the Rebel 250. In fact, one of our concepts for the bike was to have the customer “raise” or “grow” the bike through customization and other means. In actuality, it wasn’t an instant hit, but rather a bike that gradually began to sell over time. Even from a global perspective, I feel that the Rebel is a model that was basically “raised” by our customers.

Honda is actively working to build a welcoming atmosphere at the front entrance of its R&D center with a “zoo” housing models named after animals.

People want to see change come to motorcycles as well. Looking to the future, what kind of new value do you want to bring forth?

Nishida I think the main goal of achieving carbon neutrality is to address global warming, and if asking what we can do to that end, electrification is one direction we can go in. If the way we produce electricity and manufacture batteries no longer emits carbon dioxide and if we can use renewable energy on a greater scale, full electrification of our products may be a possibility in the future.

But right now, there are still so many hurdles to making electric powertrains feasible and I think getting past them will require considerable technological innovation. But global warming isn’t going to wait for us to do that. In the time we spend working to bring about those innovations, I’m sure there are still going to be people who need vehicles with internal combustion engines to get around or to have more fulfilling lives, as well as people who simply don’t want to see the fun or thrill of internal combustion engines disappear.

To make sure people like that don’t feel a sense of guilt when using one or even have their freedom to move around with one stripped from them, I believe we still need to keep developing internal combustion engine technologies. Conserving energy resources by raising fuel efficiency will likely become even more important from here on, and heck, if everyone just starts riding motorcycles instead, I’m pretty sure we’d see global CO2 emissions drop off a cliff. [laughs]

Tsukamoto Honda has officially announced that we will aim to achieve carbon neutrality companywide by 2040, and for motorcycles, last year we announced that we aim to be selling one million EVs globally by 2026 and have EVs comprise around 15% of our total unit sales by 2030.

There are many ways to approach addressing the energy problem, and while it’s true that the logic behind electrification has yet to be firmly established, we are still pushing forward with it in order to achieve carbon neutrality.

But if speaking from a global perspective, each country has its own rules, regulations, and views. These have to be addressed individually, and in that sense, we are driving our carbon neutrality efforts in several directions, be it electrification, biofuels, or other alternative energy sources.

There are various methodologies to choose from, but I think what Honda and Yamaha probably have in common is our desire to offer the joy of personal mobility to as many customers as possible.

Nishida I agree wholeheartedly. And if it’s “looking toward the future,” we cannot get there without also improving safety. For motorcycles to continue existing as the wonderful vehicles that they are, we need to create a world where everyone who heads out for a ride with a smile on their face also always comes back home safe with a smile on their face. This applies equally for both sportbikes and commuter models.

Tsukamoto In other words, we cannot let motorcycles become perceived as hazards to society. This is a perspective we take very seriously as well.

Honda announced that it aims to reduce the number of traffic collision fatalities involving its motorcycles and automobiles by 50% by 2030 and to achieve zero fatalities by 2050. I believe doing that will require offering not only cutting-edge technologies, but also traffic safety education and similar programs in Japan as well as other countries around the world.

As we try out various approaches, we need to make firm pushes to enhance safety so that motorcycles remain vehicles that broaden boundaries and bring joy to people’s lives instead of being seen as detrimental to society. I feel Yamaha has the exact same mindset here.

With the shift to electrification and the need to meet ever-stricter emissions regulations, aren’t some riders worried that all this will kill off the fun in motorcycling?

Tsukamoto I think a lot of this depends on the customer. In other words, isn’t what customers find fun the most important thing?

I feel that values surrounding this in Japan are changing. I’ve said this a couple times already since we began this chat, but people here are starting to see motorcycles less as things to enjoy in and of themselves and more as tools for doing something. If that’s the case, I think even electric bikes can still offer the same kind of fun that has captured the hearts of our customers today.

Of course, it’s not an all-encompassing solution. Some things you just can’t replicate with electric bikes, like the tangible pulse and beat of an engine. But on the other hand, you can put out serious torque with an electric motor and that offers a kind of fun different from everything until now. Plus, since it doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases, I think the possibilities for uses and usable locations will grow.

However, the type of fun may be different from what it has been until now.

Nishida It’s exactly as you say. Depending on what you find interesting, one thing may be entirely boring to one person, but be very interesting for someone else in a completely different way.

However, take electrification, for example. I think that going with engineering and development that just carries on what’s fun right now isn’t very appealing. From my standpoint as an engineer, going in to the company every day to engineer and create something new that serves only to carry on today’s fun doesn’t sound very stimulating to me. Since we’ve got this new “electric” canvas to work with, I’d rather work to produce something that takes advantage of those characteristics and offers a kind of fun unlike any before. On top of that, it’s still not a big business yet, so all the more reason to freely throw out and try ideas, because now’s the time for that. This may sound pretty selfish for an engineer, but that’s what I think.

In the end, what comes out of that may not prove very interesting for customers today. But I want to say that there are other, different kinds of fun to be found. And if some people are drawn to one kind of fun or begin to expect it from us, I think giving them what they want is one of the unique joys of this job.

Tsukamoto Our stance is the same. We don’t really see electric bikes as an extension of our motorcycles with internal combustion engines. If anything, I feel it’s a mistake to think of things that way.

From the value offered as a vehicle to market positioning and more, there are undoubtedly unique things we can accomplish by using electric motors. There’s even the potential to create a new segment of customers that will confidently state, “Oh, I’d ride it if it was an electric.”

Plus, we’re really in the midst of the dawn of the electric motorcycle. There should be lots of challenges. Internal combustion engined motorcycles didn’t get to this point of maturity without all kinds of repeated trial and error. Because the sun is only just beginning to rise for electric bikes right now, I feel we need to go ahead and try various new things with the understanding that Honda’s market share is basically zero and that we too are up-and-comers in this field.

Yamaha’s R-Series lineup encourages stepping up through classes and experiencing the joy from that, going from the YZF-R25 or R3 to the R7 and R1/R1M. Nishida himself is a bona fide supersport motorcycle enthusiast.

What do you expect motorcycles of the future will be like? And, where or how will the traits unique to Yamaha or Honda manifest themselves in such motorcycles?

Tsukamoto We will advance connectivity in motorcycles as a feature and as an added value for customers, but at the same time, I think simplicity remains an important part of motorcycles as vehicles. We’re dedicated to finding ways to make our customers’ lives more convenient, so when we ask ourselves what kind of electric motorcycle would be good for them, I believe we need to wholeheartedly pursue creating something that is simple, lightweight, has excellent range, and is easy to ride.

Nishida By all means, supply some to us on an OEM basis! [laughs] With electric motors becoming such a common commodity in countries all around the world, I feel that the hurdle to entering the electric mobility space has become extremely low. We shouldn’t be trying to compete based on the performance of individual components. Instead, I think the only avenue for us to compete is to focus on the level of fit, finish, and refinement we can build into the full package.

Where we incorporate the Unique Style of Yamaha within that context is a high-level balance of its Etsu and Shin elements, or Excitement and Confidence. With Etsu in particular, while we will still fully emphasize the sports side, I want to build in little gimmicks that work to augment the fun factor as the customer’s skills grow. At the same time, we want to ensure reliability remains top-shelf. There’s no waver in my belief that this is what will make such models uniquely Yamaha.

Tsukamoto I’m repeating myself again a bit here, but at Honda, we believe that no matter the era, what makes us Honda is seeking to expand the potential of our customers’ lives as well as making their lives better.

What exactly makes their life better depends on the individual customer. For example, you could say that with sport models, feeling excitement through one or experiencing the joy of overcoming a hurdle of some kind is one way a customer’s life is made better or more fulfilling.

To make these concepts reality, motorcycles are the hardware we build for that and deliver them to customers. I believe this is what Honda needs to pursue. There are countless other ways to realize these concepts, but the concepts themselves remain unchanged. This is what I think makes Honda unique.

Back to