Some Call It Donation, Some Cheap Disposal

Sales & Trends

TOKYO, Japan – Generally Bike Europe’s market report on Japan do not include export figures because they rely almost 100% on so-called “throwaway bicycles”. These are collected by the police, declared to be donations, and shipped to developing countries. In 2013 this number is expected to amount more than 3 million units.

Some Call It Donation, Some Cheap Disposal

The policy of exporting throwaway bicycles means that the people in Japan want to get rid of millions of bicycles every year. How could that be?

Bicycle Market Japan 2012/2011 (in units)

2012 2011 +/- in %
Production 1,010,416 1,101,666 – 8.3
Imports* 8,499,444 9,450,592 – 10.1
Export 2,980,626 2,676,620 +11.4
Domestic deliveries 9,509,860 10,552,258 – 9.9

*Since 2009 e-bikes are included in Japan’s production. E-bike imports are not included in the overall import figure.

Cheap “light bicycles”

Most of these bicycles being collected by the police are cheap made in China light cycles, an everyday bicycle category very common in Japan. You can buy them for as cheap as € 35 at a mass merchant. They are typically single-speeders with a drum brake and a front shopping basket. In 2012 the average sales price of this category – including the sale of higher quality and more expensive bikes at IBDs – was € 149.13 per unit.

When left behind in a no-parking zone the police issue a ticket and a few days later they are collected if not moved away by the owner. To get it back the owner has to pay approximately € 23. For this price you can almost buy a new light cycle. Moreover when having a puncture many Japanese buy a new cheap light cycle instead of spending time to repair it or take it to a workshop. They just leave the bike where they got stuck.

This has become a serious problem in overpopulated urban areas on the coastline of Japan. The police started to collect and store these bicycles. After a certain time the storage areas became packed and the police decided to get rid it by shipping them overseas. Today these shipments as donation to developing countries is criticized as no more than an elegant way of disposal.

Some years ago the Japanese found a solution for these “throwaway bicycles”. Initially they were hidden on the official bicycle stats as exports and the total export figure started to grow. However the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute (JBPI) decided to exclude them from the total shipment numbers once the first reports about these secondhand donations declared as bicycle exports came up. Today the “throwaway bicycles” are not mentioned in the total shipment figures but are published separately as bicycle export. The exact numbers are mainly based on statistics of the police and published by the Ministry of Finance (MOF). According to MOF Trade Statistics 2012 Japan exported a total of 2.98 million units to third world countries, an 11.4% increase compared with 2011.

Bicycle Market Japan 2012 (by category)

Category Volume/units +/- 2011 Market share
Light cycles 3,586,793 -13.8% 37.7%
E-bikes 381,046 -5.4% 4.0%
Kid bikes 2,075,504 -13.1% 21.8%
Juvenile bikes 692,111 +5.1% 7.3%
Mini bikes 92,405 -16.5% 1.0%
Mountain bikes 325,828 +13.1 3.4%
Others 2,356,173 -7,3% 24.8%


‘Real’ bike exports

To present an idea about on how many ‘real’ bicycle exports are included in this overall export data JBPI was able to name them to us for the first year 2013 quarter. According to their stats there have been 69 “real export units” from the mentioned 2.98 million units. 44 went to China at an average price of € 167.89, 13 to Taiwan at an average price of € 239.72, eight to Singapore at an average price of € 622.50, and two to each Belgium and the USA.

Third world and UAE

The MOF’s country-by-country export figures are striking for the fact that there are not only third world countries receiving these used bicycles. With a total of 127,178 units the UAE is listed eighth in the country-by-country top-11. The € 11.09 average FOB unit value of a disposal bicycle out of Japan and reaching the UAE is the third highest and right behind Iraq. A few decades ago this country was one of the leading premium bicycle production forces in the world. In total some 67.7 % are shipped to African countries and 32.1 % to Asia. Critics doubt if these kinds of bicycles are good transportation vehicles for Africans that, compared to Asian people, are generally taller and weigh more.

Who gets how many?

It is also astonishing that some nations, for example Ghana (575,000 units; -14.4%) and Vietnam (89,000 units; -64.6%) receive compared to the previous year fewer disposal bicycles than other countries such as Myanmar (331,000 units; + 4.3%) and Iran (211,000 units; +56.5%). It’s not clear who decides which country gets less or more of this huge amount of Japanese throwaway bikes. According to JBPI there are probably “various individual reasons.”

It’s also not clear how MOF is calculating the value of these bicycles leading to the noted average FOB unit value. When asked the JBPI referred back to MOF and said they don’t understand how they calculate either, and therefore don’t know if the noted value is for customs only. JBPI also pointed out the fact that “almost all the used bicycles are exported by bicycle industry outsiders.”

Remarkable to note is also than Japan exported more than half a million bicycles to Cambodia, while receiving at the same time 4,444 units out of Cambodia. This volume is based on the rising Cambodian low-labor production in the hands of Taiwanese bicycle producers. What we are talking here about is not any cheap China Made light cycles but premium branded high-quality bikes entering the Japanese market.

After Fukushima Disaster Japan 2012 Bicycle Market Back to Normal

In 2012, one year after the Fukushima disaster that lifted bike sales, the market is back to normal. Home production dropped by 8.3% on 2011, down to 1.01 million units. It included 381,046 pedelecs, 5.4% down in units and a 4.8% decline in value. The good news was that the average sales price was stable (+ 0.7%). Bicycle imports (excluding pedelecs) dropped by 10.1% to 8.5 million units. 8.2 million units alone were out of China. Last year a total of 9.5 million bicycles were delivered to the Japanese market, a decline of 9.9%.

Comment on this article