Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More photos from an American in Japan, 1959-'61

Mike Harper today. He runs Harper Moto Guzzi with his son. They're the world's largest Guzzi parts distributor. In the late '50s, he raced a BSA in the U.S. Midwest.
In 1959, Mike enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the Atsugi Naval Base, near Tokyo. He was supposed to provide mechanical support for HUK-1 heavy lift helicopters like this one, but soon after he arrived, the Navy transferred all the Huskies somewhere else. Mike got a cushy job as Shore Patrol, which left him a lot of time for motorcycles.
He bought this Honda 350 Dream single...
…and joined the Atsugi Road Brothers. The club's members were U.S. navy men and local bikers.
They hung out at Aoki Motors, the local Honda and Yamaha dealer.
The ditch at left is a 'benjo' ditch; an open sewer. "I guess you didn't want to crash in there," I said. "No," Mike replied. "But everyone did."
The Navy let the Road Brothers use Navy vehicles to take their bikes to races! Rider pictured: Mitsuo Aoki.
One of the biggest races in Japan at that time was a national scrambles at Fujinamiya.
 Mike raced at Fujinamiya on his BSA 650, but it was a handful on the rough course.
The next year, he was the official factory rider for the Lilac team. He's E31 here.
The Lilac was not up to the challenge; he never finished a race on it.
When they weren't racing, there were often field meets. Today, motorcycle accidents are a major 'readiness' issue for the armed forces, and they're trying to incorporate motorcycle safety training for soldiers, airmen, and sailors. Maybe they need to make skills development fun, as these guys did. This bike belonged to one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers, who used it to deliver laundry
 Several road brothers prepare for a field meet event.
 There were lots of big American cars in Japan at that time, apparently.
 Mike on a 50cc Tohatsu. When they raced at Japanese air bases, they had to ride around bomb craters.
Another shot of 50cc bikes on an air base.
 Mike with his 350 single.
Another sailor, Roger Thomas, poses with a pair of then-new 305 Superhawks.
 A field meet at Shimoda air base.
 Atsugi club members' field meet.
 Field meet.
 Field meet.
 Riding a greased plank(!)
 This was a "lime run". Riders followed a series of white lime markings, along an unknown route.
 Another sailor from the Kansas City area, Dick Fletcher, on a road above a military housing area near Yokohama.
 Mike, on a Meguro 250, with Tomio Aosabi, one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers. Mike "got orders" [to return to the U.S.] in 1961. Although he later became a Yamaha dealer, he never returned to Japan, or saw any of his Japanese pals again.

 Mike on his BSA Rocket Gold Star

 One of the places they rode out to visit was "the big Buddha" at Kamakura.
 Drag racing on an air base.
A group of Road Brothers on part of the Chiba-Atami road course.
Winning that race got Mike entry into the Tokyo Otokichi Club, and an invitation to test ride the Honda RC160 on Honda's test track. He met Soichiro Honda on that day. I asked him when it dawned on him that he was witnessing the most important moment in Japanese motorcycle history -- the time when Japanese manufacturers made the transition from copyists to innovators, and when the quality of Japanese bikes began to surpass their more established European and American competitors. He told me, "Oh, about twenty years after I left."


  1. Wow, what an interesting story, Mark. How did you come across Mark Harper?

  2. Greetings from Tokyo!

    Great story and excellent photos! Really evocative of an exciting time in Japan's post-war history. I'm sure a few of the OB's (Old Boys) at Honda would be thrilled to see this (think I may even show this to a few of them ;-) ).

    One small correction, though (50+ year-old memories being what they are): That's Fujinomiya, not Fujinamiya.
    There may not have been much there at the base of Mt. Fuji back in the pre-Shinkansen days of 1959, however nowadays it's a pretty significant little city, which you can easily find on Google Maps (that's Fujinomiya, Shizuoka). Other than that quibble, a fantastic read. Thumbs up!

    If you make it out to Japan again someday soon, be sure to check out the Honda Collection Hall up in Motegi. It's been totally revamped for the first time since it's opening 15 years ago, and has a lot more of interest (both old photos and new text) hanging on its walls now. Oh, and be sure to drop a line. Love to chat over some yakitori and few warm ones.

    All the best,