executive impact

Harley-Davidson Japan

By Chris Betros

One of the most iconic symbols of American lifestyle is the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. For over 100 years, the large motorcycles -- with their distinctive design and customization -- have been a fixture on highways. Clubs and events organized by HOGs (Harley Owner Groups) have created a loyal community in many countries.

Japan is no exception, where HD bikes have been imported since 1913. Harley-Davidson Japan was established in 1989. In 2010, the company sold 11,719 bikes in Japan. In 2011 (at the end of September), the figure was 8,470.

Heading up the Harley-Davidson operation in Japan is Christian Walters. Japan Today hears more about the business.

What is the image of Harley-Davidson in Japan?

Japanese customers see Harley-Davidson as an iconic American brand with a rich history and a unique brand heritage. Customers are fascinated by the “look, sound, feel” of a Harley-Davidson and the timeless classical design cues which not only is constant but evolving with innovation.

There are also some people who connect Harley-Davidson to wild images like riding on vast land of America as was depicted in the movie “Easy Rider or to the tough images revealed in the movie “Terminator,” but we believe Harley-Davidson is a brand loved by a wide range of customers. You can say that, Harley-Davidson is more than just a motorcycle. It represents freedom, self-expression and an opportunity to be part of a unique lifestyle.

How did the March 11 disaster affect business? Will 2011 end up being a good year?

The Harley-Davidson family of staff and dealers were fortunate to not have fatalities but we did have a number of sales outlets damaged by the earthquake and two were impacting significantly by the tsunami. In terms of sales, we were not immune to the overall macro impact. However, we are proud of how our dealer network and customers have responded positively to such a terrible situation. We are also confident our brand remains quite strong and long-term impacts are mitigated.

How is the strong yen affecting business?

We are a Japanese entity that conducts our business in yen. Also, being an established premium brand for such a long time in Japan, we do not make pricing decisions based on fluctuating FX rates.

What is your marketing strategy for Japan? I think you are selling a lifestyle as much as you are selling a motorcycle.

You are quite right. Harley-Davidson enables individuals to showcase their personalities and every motorcycle is a canvas of self-expression that helps them to embrace a distinct lifestyle and culture as well as embark on a unique experience. We are a global brand and live by our policy of providing utmost priority in offering a “Premium Ownership Experience” which can only be enjoyed through customers’ purchase of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Premium experiences are offered from broad areas, not only through the products but also through our wide range of P&A and excellent sales network, individual activities of dealer operated chapter, branch organization of world’s largest riders’ group, HOG (Harley Owners Group) with about 1.1 million members in 131 countries. In Japan, there are approximately 40,000 HOG members -- the 2nd largest HOG organization after the home country of U.S.

I believe Harley-Davidson is quite different from other motorcycle brands in that Harley-Davidson broadens the interactions among riders, creates bonds among customers as HOG provides occasions for owners to interact at events or programs for members to enjoy the unique riding experience and kinship.

Who are your typical customers?

Many people tend to think that Harley-Davidson is purchased by males who are in their 50s or 60s, but in fact the average age of a new Harley-Davidson owner in 2010 was 43.7 years old. Our customers are brand loyalist and riding enthusiasts from all walks of life and of all age groups. Another interesting fact is that an average of 70% of those who bought a Harley-Davidson is a new customer to our brand. Considering we have been here in Japan for nearly 100 years (in 2013) we believe this proves the high level of interest by consumers in Japan.

How much of your sales in Japan comes from bikes and how much from accessories?

Our annual report in 2010 will show that approximately 75% of our revenues comes from motorcycles, while about 18% from parts & accessories and 6% from MotorClothes. We believe that each individual has their own unique proposition and H-D offers riders an opportunity for self-expression, through changing the form and aesthetics of their motorcycles such that no two are identical i.e. “every customer is a custom.”

What is Harley-Davidson’s share of the over-751cc bike market in Japan?

Based on government registration data from JAIA, the 2010 market share of Harley-Davidson in Japan for 751+cc category was 31.1%. And our market share will be 26% if we see the market from 401+cc, which means 1 out of 4 mid/heavyweight motorcycles are Harley-Davidsons.

How many new models did you launch in Japan this year?

We launched a total of 30, 2012 MY models in Japan. Among the 30 models, two are brand new to the market -- FLD Switchback from the Dyna family and the 10th anniversary model from V-ROD family, the only liquid-cooled model offered by Harley-Davidson.

What is your best-selling group in Japan?

Our uniquely designed compact Sportster line is the best selling family in Japan as Sportster models fit to the Japanese traffic environment and the physical size of a Japanese person. The XL1200X Forty-Eight from Sportster Family has favorably been accepted by a wide range of age group since the debut in 2011MY. The Touring Family, our premium flagship models for Harley-Davidson equipped with the Twin Cam 103 engine, is our second most popular family. Last but not least, CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) is our ultimate in premium factory custom touring with high-end performance, Screamin' Eagle power.

Do you have to make modifications to bikes sold in Japan to comply with Japanese noise and emission standards?

Harley-Davidson motorcycles always meet or exceed the noise and emission standards in all 77 countries in which they are sold, including Japan, which has the strictest standards in the world.

Tell us about your distribution network.

We have a total of 181 sales outlets as our network throughout Japan. We apply our own Harley-Davidson standardized criteria to dealers and allow only those which fulfill these criteria to operate as part of our authorized sales network. Our dealer network is not just an environment where customers can see, touch, feel and ride our beautiful motorcycles, but also engage in experiencing a breadth of genuine parts & accessories, and MotorClothes to provide a true “Premium Customer Experience” that is unique to Harley-Davidson.

How do you get feedback from customers?

We track our customers’ feedback by free dial, customer events, and owner’s survey.

How many staff do you have in Japan?

We have 45 full-time employees working in Japan as of Dec 1. In addition, including staff from the independent Harley-Davidson dealers, the Harley-Davidson business in Japan is responsible for approximately 1,500 jobs in Japan.

Do you own a Harley-Davidson bike? How often do you ride it?

I have owned three different Harley-Davidsons in my past, including before I was an employee. Before moving to Japan, I was a proud owner of a Dyna Fat bob. While living in Tokyo, I have enjoyed riding as many different Harley-Davidsons as possible and use one as my primary means of commuting to and from the office. I make many other salary men quite jealous.

© Japan Today

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Bought a Harley when I first came here. Sold it a year later after realizing Japan's road system and lack of 'cruising' highways aggravated the hell outa me (paying big bucks to ride on a toll highway is not my thing). Japan's road system is just not set up for cruising. Got tired of riding 40-50 km max and stopping at a signal light every 10 seconds. Bought a Kawasaki Versys, which is much lighter and more suited for short commutes as well as the mountain trails I explore and camp on. First non-cruiser I have owned in more than 20 years and lots of fun.

3 ( +4 / -2 )

I had a 400cc Suzuki 28 years ago here. I sold it within a year, as there were too many close calls with kids and old ladies on bicycles getting in my way.

I use a granny bike now. Much easier for texting while riding I would assume.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Just love the Harley Davidson shops and their great leather goods. Bought my bike leather jacket there and it is still as good as new. That's what I call quality. My dream is an ultra classic FLH....saving now...

1 ( +2 / -1 )

And Milwaukee, WI is not mentioned?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

What's the only difference between a Harley Davidson and a vacuum cleaner? The location of the dirtbag. ; )

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You have to go WAY out there for some good cruisin in Japan. There are places to cruise, but they are all out of the city.

Depends on the rider too. Guys on sport bikes versus cruisers have different calling. It's curves versus straight roads.

NetNinja's recommendation: Head down to Muira. Take the ferry across to Boso Chiba. Get across early and make a day of it. A GPS system is a must have. There are many different shops over there. Not all of them Japanese. You'd be surprised by some places you can find.

Ride down past the horn and come up the East side. If the weather is nice, you are in for a treat. Riding tandem, no worries.

Coming back, YOU MUST ride Route 410. Hate signals? Take 410. You'll have all types of fun. Corners, straightaways, ups and downs. Have a guide book. So many things to do. Have saddle bags? Get them. Lots of delicious souvenirs that aren't the usual run of the mill cookies.

Unfortunately, all roads lead back to Tokyo. You can never escape coming back to reality UNLESS you are coming back really late at night. Aqua line back across to Kanagawa and go your separate ways.

Whatever you do, keep it up on two!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

King of the road. For years I had many big bikes, mostly British and Japanese. Never owned a Harley. Always dreamed of crossing America on one, Route 66. My fasted speed on a bike, 150 mph!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

The No 1 bike in the world, the one which has sold more than any other, you can fill it with veg oil, throw it off a roof and it still works. Great mpg. Goes on forever. Yes! you have got it! But won't impress your girlfriend,

A Honda 50cc!!

People have even risen around the world on one!!!

Saw one once with a sign, "My other bike is a Harley!"

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Bought my Electra Glide at a Red Baron in Sagamihara- now it's likely the only one in NJ that's been ridden from Tokyo to Kyoto (via Rt 1 since then you couldn't have passengers on the Tomei). Used to love going to the Harley shops in Kanagawa. Head out with a couple friends & we could spend an entire day visiting maybe a half dozen shops (some just H-D, some independent, & some multi brand). Best thing about H-D shops in Japan- more bikes & less MotorClothes & accessories.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Best thing about H-D shops in Japan- more bikes & less MotorClothes & accessories.

I visited the Harley shop in Shibuya back in 2005, and found the bikes/other stuff ratio to be about 50/50, which is pretty damn respectable.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"we do not make pricing decisions based on fluctuating FX rates."

In other words, all the advantages from a strong yen go into OUR pockets, not our customers'. Sigh.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Jeff - That's why Harley's on track to sell fewer bikes this year than last year.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Harleys are about customization, making your ride your own.

0 ( +0 / -0 )


As are most bikes, now for most bikes(non-HD) you can only order a few basic models(Steed/Shadow, Virago, etc come to mind) the rest you need to do yourself.

I have seen Harley's delivered that were fully customised from a catalogue by the buyer before he even got the Bike. Sorry, no fun in that, I like to do my own customising on choppers, etc. And I have done some extensive mods on mine.

Each custom part that is added changes the riding feel and often the handling. And you can also customise racers, by using a Harris fame, etc.

Rant over.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The Hells Angels granted a Japanese biker club, Deadly Drive MC, official "hangaround" charter status last year. They'll all be riding Harleys.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Harley Davidson: what a ghastly, fugly motorcycle. bmw and motto guzzi make the most awe inspiring bikes. not to mention, harleys are always breaking down. thats why the california highway patrol stopped using them and began using BMWs instead. harleys just reminds of the rednecks i used to work with in newspaper assembly across the US when i lived there.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Harley Davidsons are the Gucci handbags of the motorcycle world.

I had one back in the UK. The bike itself was okay, but everywhere you went people would say, 'Ooh, Harley Davidson...' even if they knew nothing about bikes. It's good for the egos of the people who need that kind of thing I suppose. I've had Japanese, German and Italian bikes too.

You can say that, Harley-Davidson is more than just a motorcycle. It represents freedom, self-expression and an opportunity to be part of a unique lifestyle

This is just marketing speak, of course. I went on a run with Surrey HOG and it was the most embarrassing day of my life. Pseudo back patch weekend warriors dressed up like cowboys and Peter Fonda. Still, I do like twins.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The HD are great bikes. Just hate to pay 2x the retail. (US) in japan I was told in an official HD shop You pay for the image ..... Guess it is for special customers only who are.....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Hells Angels/Deadly Drive MC/"hangaround status"

Aren't the Hells Angels too busy fighting turf wars to "hang around" with anyone? Go research the recent death of the San Jose chapter president at the hands of a fellow Hells Angel, at the funeral of a Nevada casino shooting victim. This is not the kind of thing you learn about in the motorcycle fashion magazines in Japan (yes, I browse through them at the bookstores just to get a good laugh at all the wannabe biker gang bangers). These aren't the Guardian Angels, after all.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i would prefer a japanese made motor cycle any day as you can gaurantee you shall always get to your destination

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Pff wouldn't waste my money on a Harley! Had one and I never stopped swearing at it! They are all name and no quality! Get a Japanese bike and you'll never have to curse again! If you are entertaining thoughts of such a purchase go and read stuff in the forums by other people who have purchased a Hardly Davidson to get the real oil!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yeah I agree with lostrune2! This Harley Davidson bike is made to be customized. It is meant to be personalize as your own. The better you fit this motorcycle the better the ride. Attaining the right fit is crucial for maximizing comfort and getting the best of every ride. Well, as for me I modified mine and made it my own. I usually get my HD parts from http://www.jcwhitney.com. They offer 50% less than the retail price and they ship within 24 hours.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Thod is probably gonna sound stupid but back in the 90s I was in Japan I got a keychain from the Harley dealers there well it finally broke. I went on the Harley site trying to replace it but am having a hard time with the site can anyone help me.

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