The Sakai City steel works dominates the skyline. Huge cranes from the docks stick out from behind a train line bridge in the distance. Beside me, a group of newspaper boys (they’re actually mostly middle-aged men and women) push heavily laden bicycles down the quiet road that runs into the not-so-quiet Daini Hanna national highway.
On either side of the street there are lampposts with luminaires which look like a prop from Abigail’s Party. They have Shimano light boxes attached to them, displaying those familiar corporate aqua-nautical-like colours. A Nozomi 500 bullet train skims across the trainline bridge with hissing efficiency. Some of the paperboys and girls are pedalling off, wobbling, smoking and chatting.
Photographer Taz is a couple of streets behind me, gazing into the powerlines above, shooting away. This is the road that leads to and from Shimano’s factory and world HQ which we had just been to see.
A story in my head is developing: two giants of 20th century industry, Japan and Great Britain, and the subsequent shift in manufacturing from homeland to cheaper shores… I was busy thinking that Sakai City, the home of Japanese manufacturing on the outskirts of Osaka, is a bit like Smethwick on the outskirts of Birmingham, the former home of British manufacturing, but also nothing like it.
It looks just as worn-out, although there’s no litter and no red-brick buildings, but the smells of engineering, of oil and swarf, are hanging in the air. The difference at Shimano is the often pungent smell of soy sauce from the factory next door. I wander into a 100-yen shop and browse the shelves of useless, unusual tat, and not for the first time that week, I feel slightly bewildered.
A Swiss/Japanese ex-pat friend of mine told me that everyone who visits Japan for more than a month decides to write a book about their experiences. She goes on to tell me that it will be full of clichéd sweeping statements about how the Japanese live, work and play – often misinterpreted and sometimes clearly wrong.
Cyclo cross racer and Rapha’s Japanese agent Daisuke Yano delved into Japanese anthropology a step further, explaining that while the Japanese rarely speak their minds to your face, when they do it’s usually in private, so their politeness can be just for show. Daisuke is as direct as any European or American I have met, but equally polite.
Subsequently, after wrestling with the idea of writing a book about how polite everyone is, how crowded the train stations are and how impeccably clean the streets are, I decided just to tell the Shimano story as it happened (because even a month in Japan is not enough time to straighten the full story in your head). So here is Shimano: Part One.
“That’s why I buy Campagnolo – because I can think of a person making it. I can’t think of a person making a Shimano derailleur. I’m not saying they don’t, but I can’t envisage it.
"Whereas I can see, you know, coming up from the local village going, oh, I’m going to be packing Record C rear mechs today and that’s what they do all day – I like the fact that someone’s done it.”
Rohan Dubash, Rouleur Issue 14.
Kadir Guirey and I nodded sagely in agreement with Rohan as we discussed the life of Tullio Campagnolo and the appeal of Italian engineering as we saw it – which was, at least, how I used to see it.
We talked on into the small hours, as you do, about The Giant And The File (the biography of Campagnolo), superior Italian engraving, the classic victories and everything we knew about Campag – the legend and all that goes with it. But it left me thinking: what about the Shimano story?
Shimano is probably one of the least understood companies in cycling, but that’s not really surprising when Japan is one of the least understood countries in the world.
We had been threatening a Japanese trip for a long time. Harald Troost from Shimano’s European head office had warned me: “Prepare for a culture shock.” I wasn’t prepared, but I was certainly very excited; judging by all the stories I had heard from work colleagues about Shimano press trips, it was going to be an adventure.
I had been told we would see robots making cassette sprockets and wheels flying around on conveyor belts, and how the factory floor was clean enough for former president Yoshizo Shimano to don a white boiler suit and roll around on the floor. And how a Dura-Ace rear mech is made almost completely without the touch of a human hand…
A huge plastic blue marlin dominates the waiting area in the foyer of Shimano headquarters – a trophy relating to its involvement in the fishing industry (which is 23 per cent of their current business, in case you were wondering). The whopper represents the biggest fish caught on Shimano tackle.
We had already met our Shimano contact at the Tokyo bike show the week before travelling down to Osaka. Tetsuo Nishioka, who works in the advertising and promotions department at Shimano, arranged our visit. Known as TN, he explained in an email prior to the show: “As I am a very big Japanese guy (height 183cm, weight 93kg), you can find me easily at the Shimano booth.”
It was a strange way to introduce yourself, but TN is an affable, quiet and (by Japanese standards) large man who has worked at Shimano for more than 30 years. In Tokyo, we chatted for a while about our plans, which was tricky because we wanted to do an interview with Yozo Shimano, the company’s president, and hang around the factory for a while.
Both are something the company is not used to as press trips and interviews are rare at Shimano and usually held in groups. So all of us were a bit like the marlin: a fish out of water.
Standing in the lobby next to the huge fish, TN introduces us to Masamitsu Ehara, the manager of corporate communications, and to a more familiar face, Masahiko Jimbo, the man who is largely responsible for how we all control our bikes nowadays and someone who is often present at Shimano product launches around the world.
It was at the 1989 Tour de France that Phil Anderson met Jimbo, who was then a young product engineer from Shimano responsible for testing and developing a set of brake levers – the prototypes for STI shifters. The Aussie pro thought they looked bizarre. Phil recalls: "He saw that I was intrigued and asked if I would mind training a little on the bike to give his crew some feedback. I agreed to give it a try.
"I remember Jimbo following me on a motor scooter during my training rides so he could get a first hand idea of the frequency of the gear changes.” Following riders on scooters sounds like a familiar approach – remember a similar story from Dario Pegoretti? Anyway, it’s 20 years later, and Jimbo is now marketing director for Shimano’s bicycle components division. He is probably the world authority on all things Shimano, with an encyclopedic knowledge of product names, dates, variations and competitors’ equipment.
We are all ushered into a meeting room that feels a little like a boardroom from a film set, with wooden panelled walls and cream office chairs. Weirdly, after all the lengthy preparations for this meeting, I feel like I am about the meet the headmaster – which, I hasten to add, was never my favourite pastime.
Yozo Shimano walks into the room relaxed and smiling, greeting us warmly. Fortunately for me, he is not at all like a headmaster – he is dressed in Shimano’s standard-issue blue bomber jacket, like the guys on the shop floor, although very much smarter. Yozo is the fourth Shimano family member to be president, the third generation of Shimanos to lead the company. What was intriguing is that they all spend the next 20 minutes interviewing us, and they’ve done their homework.
A copy of Rouleur sits on the table with Post-it notes marking pages. They want to know about the magazine, about the UK market, about cycling in Europe and what we think of Japan. It’s quite a pleasant change, but eventually the interviewee manages to turn back into interviewer…
We’ve talked a lot in the magazine about the legend of companies, of bicycle companies, and some of the Italian firms that we’ve been to see – Gios, Colnago and Dario Pegoretti, for example – all have a legend, a story behind them, who they are and what they’ve achieved and what they’ve made. What do you think the Shimano story is?
Yozo: In 1921, my grandfather started Shimano Iron Works, and he started to produce a single freewheel, because at that time the single freewheel was the most difficult engineering problem of the bicycle’s componentry.
So, as the first product, he started to produce a single freewheel. And, of course, for several years he had trouble in improving the quality and also productivity, but after about ten years or so, he was the number one supplier of single freewheels in this country. He was not satisfied, so he tried to export his single freewheel to south-east Asia and he was successful. He passed away in 1958 and my father took over his position and he became the president of this company.
And maybe five or six years later, after his presidency, he tried to start exporting to the United States. At that time, you know, the bicycle industry was slowing – in Japan the motorcycle and automobile took over the place of the bicycle, and people said the bicycle had no future. So he went to Europe and America – people over there use the bicycle not as transport, but as fun and for sport. So he started trying to export three-speed hubs to the United States and he was pretty successful.
And after that, you know, things took off. We understood that road racing is very popular in Europe and we tried to participate in that industry, so we started to develop the first Dura-Ace in 1973. We tried to export it to Europe. But at first, we were not so successful, you know, and we introduced the Shimano index system into Dura-Ace in 1984. So probably they were the first [significantly] successful products into the European market for us.
In 1990, we introduced STI index shifting levers, and while we were developing the road racing components, as you know, mountain bikes were invented in America. We found the people in California who enjoyed the bicycle, the so-called “clunker”.
At that time I was the new product development director, and we went to California to check what they were doing. And we found that, at the time, they took the bicycle up on the hill in trucks and then they ride down from the mountain. In those days, they originally used the coaster brake for braking, so they had to service the whole brake after each run, reloading the system with the grease. So they had to repack their bikes [hence the name for the Repack mountain bike race craze].
I personally became friends with Gary Fisher [one-time Repack racer, now mountain bike legend] and we saw a bright future in the market, so I decided to develop bicycle components for them. And our first original mountain bike components were introduced in 1982.
Just switching back to road racing, though, are you very keen to follow the road racing in Europe? Would you watch the road racing at all and how do you see the bike racing scene in Japan compared to Europe?
Yozo: You know, here they broadcast the Tour de France on TV, and during the Tour time, I watch what’s going on. And, of course, this year Skil-Shimano participated in the race, so every day I had the report from my people about what’s going on.
Road racing is still very small in Japan, as you may know, but we try to promote bike racing here. Every last weekend in August, we organise the amateur Shimano road race at the Suzuka circuit where Formula One is organised. This year, around 15,000 took part.
So from 7.30 on Saturday morning, I make the opening announcement and, you know, bong! And then there are many races from single road race to international road race. For the international road race, we invite some European and American professional riders, but that is the final game – very late on Sunday. Lance Armstrong participated in the race in 1990 when he was young. So did Gianni Bugno.
Going back to the Shimano legacy, the legend of Shimano, what’s the thing that you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
Yozo: Well, any product, any product I’m very proud of, otherwise I never give up production!
And the switch towards the high end of the market, for example the Yumeya products for Dura-Ace – is that a conscious decision to try to capture that side of the market, the very high end? Or is it just a bit of fun?
Yozo: Well, during the development stage, we have to think about cost and quality and also productivity – many things! And because of cost reasons, sometimes we have to give up very high and expensive materials, for instance.
And for Yumeya, to pursue our dream, we introduced those very expensive items, for those who do not care about the price. And also the colour scheme, you know, we have to choose the colour, which is very universal or whichever colour everybody likes.
But sometimes we’d like to introduce some different colour which will not be accepted by everybody, just perhaps by certain people. So we like introducing special colour, special surface treatment for the people who can appreciate those very special items. That is the main purpose of Yumeya.
It seems to be quite an un-Shimano thing to do, to customise the product, because the product is good as it stands. I’ve spoken to a lot of bicycle manufacturers who’ve said that what the customers now want is to customise their bike – they want to have their bike stand out from everybody else’s. Is that something that crossed your minds when you put it together? Was that the driving factor, do you think?
Jimbo: “Yumeya” means a dream in Japanese – it’s the dream of an engineer. Sometimes we have to compromise because of some reasons. You may not realise that, so it’s not necessarily about customers wanting to customise their bicycles, it’s about us realising perfection.
What I’m trying to get at is that obviously there is a motivation to be exceptional, and as you say, the price can be limiting…
Yozo: Customisation is not the purpose…
That’s interesting, but what’s the idea with Di2 then? It’s a very high-end product and it’s a very expensive product. Again, is that a dream for Shimano engineers to make the shifting so perfect that cost is a side issue?
Yozo: Yes, that’s one of our engineers’ dreams.
But not yours?
Yozo: Yes, of course, mine. But, you know, as a supplier of bicycle components we have to deliver more affordable Di2 products to consumers in the future.
So that’s the plan – to bring out more?
Yozo: Yes. I can’t say when, but I believe that it is our responsibility.
Do you think that competitors will be following you into the electronic market?
Yozo: Well, we heard that Campagnolo have already been testing their own electronic shifting system during the pro races, so we assume that they will deliver.
Jimbo: Mavic already introduced it – more than ten years ago!
In my very small experience of Di2, this is a step way ahead of anything that’s come previously. I remember Mavic Zap was pretty terrible, so it’s an interesting and perhaps risky development. Do you think that perhaps it’s slightly overcomplicating cycling, though, because a bicycle is such a pure, functional object? Or do you think Di2 is the logical step?
Yozo: I don’t think it’s overcomplicated. Rather, it simplifies the shifting mechanism.
Simplifies it for the user …
Yozo: Yes, for the user.
But it’s a very complicated set-up.
Yozo: Yes, of course, sure. But the same thing happened to the automobile or any electronic product – because you see on the outside, it’s become simpler, but inside? It becomes more complicated.
So do you think in the future it’s going to become more and more complicated on the inside?
Yozo: Probably. But not the outside!
So do you like cycling, recreationally, or do you like going fishing? Do you prefer one to the other?
Yozo: Well, I like both fishing and cycling. And, you know, in Japan there are lots of fish – you go fishing seasonally – so of course I enjoy fishing, except in the wintertime when it’s cold.
And when did Shimano begin making the fishing products?
Yozo: Oh, it was my father – in 1970 he decided to start the fishing equipment business because, you know, fishing reels use a lot of gear mechanisms inside, so the production and engineering methods were pretty close at that time. By utilising those Shimano assets he decided to start the fishing tackle business.
And have any of the technologies, maybe through Shimano or through different companies, has that influenced cycling, and what you do in cycling?
Yozo: Yes, we use many metals – steel, aluminium, titanium – and a fishing reel uses the same materials, and those production methods are still pretty close, and engineering methods are pretty close.
And – actively? Do you ride a bike every day? Do you ride it to work?
Yozo: Not every day. I live very close to the office – I’m the guy who lives the closest to the factory. So among all the Shimano employees, including the board of directors – everybody – I’m only five minutes’ walk from here. So I don’t need a bicycle to come to the office.
I presume you have a road bicycle and I assume it’s got Shimano components?
Yozo: Oh, of course! But it’s an interesting story… it was in 1972, we were exhibiting components at the Milan bike show, and at the time Shimano was nothing at all to European people, but our booth was next to the De Rosa booth. And every day I of course attend the show and I became friends with signor De Rosa – Ugo – and one day I asked him to make a bicycle for me.
He checked my body size and everything, and several months later he sent me a complete bicycle – but [starts laughing] together with Campagnolo components! So you know I immediately changed to Dura-Ace…
After the interview, Ehara and TN took us out onto the factory floor. The tour of the factory was fascinating and frustrating at the same time, as we couldn’t take pictures of specific machines, just watch. So for the next hour or so we agonisingly watched derailleur forgings plop out of CNC machines and cranksets bathed in anodising tanks the size of swimming pools.
But, photo opportunities aside, what struck me is that the high-tech experience wasn’t as mind-blowing as I’d thought it would be; this was still a working factory, not unlike the others I’d been to. It looked as worn and used as Brooks does and seemed as efficient and prolific as Continental. People were working, checking, packing and operating machinery.
The difference was that the big machines were far bigger than anything I’d seen in a bicycle factory. There are some really huge machines for cold forging which are the size of small family houses. And, sure, there were robots that place parts carefully, almost nonchalantly, into machine vices, which is incredible. But the result is just like any other: they make bicycle products, pure and simple – and yes, Rohan, most are touched by human hands.
When Shimano launched its first pro level Dura-Ace groupset, it was a brave step for many reasons, but they went into the market with their eyes open. They sponsored (at huge cost, no doubt) Freddy Maerten’s Flandria Pro cycling team, and along with the groupsets that went to Europe was a team of product engineers – then, as now, Shimano was there to learn.
At around the same time a huge hangar-style storage facility was built on the grounds of a former abattoir. As Shimano grew, it was taking over more and more land around its Sakai City plant.
We wanted to go inside the hangar. TN made some calls – he had to OK this with the logistics and storage team. After a few lengthy explanations, he took us into the storage area to meet Kiyoshi Hasegawa, the proud manager of logistics and the man in charge of this facility.
He appeared to have the look and sound of a man who has spent time in America, and sure enough he had spent a year working for Shimano in the US. He explains how, over the years, the machinery has been updated, mainly with computer software as the mechanics of this impressive picking and packing machine have stayed pretty much the same as they were back in the ’70s.
That’s the incredible thing about how the Japanese do engineering – complex, fit for purpose and built to last. Whatever parts are needed, the computer can find them with remote controlled fork lifts on huge shelves that tower several stories high.
The storage hangar where your Ultegra and Dura-Ace parts start out in the world is a cathedral of bike bits which looks a bit like a Thunderbirds launch pad. Outside, a shrine marks the spot where the abattoir once stood. TN tells us it was “built by Shimano in memory of the slain animals.” It’s a very Japanese way of accepting the history of the area.
Fishing the ayu is a favourite pastime of Ehara, who had been helping guide us around the factory. He finished 15th in the individual pursuit at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and like many Shimano employees he’s both a cyclist and a fisherman, although these days he prefers catching ayu to taking on Chris Boardman.
Ehara explains that the ayu is a territorial fish. It defends a small section of water weed that grows on rocks on the riverbed and grazes on the green stuff. It’s not a very friendly fish, because the weed is a valuable resource to the ayu. To catch an ayu, fishermen use a very complicated and skilled method akin to the art of fly fishing. They cheat them into protecting their territory by using another ayu as a lure.
The first invading ayu they use is usually a farmed fish (although once upon a time they used trained cormorants to catch the first fish and bring it ashore, alive, in their bills). They hook this unsuspecting ayu to the line with a nose ring and with a trailing hook underneath him and plop him back into the water via a ten-metre carbon fibre pole. In what sounds like a pretty chaotic scramble underwater, the defending fish and the attacking fish are both snagged. They are both fished out and removed. Then the caught fish becomes the next invader fish, and so on.
I’m not sure if it’s cruel or complicated or both, but Ehara assures me that the fish rarely get hooked in the mouth (which is, apparently, a more stressful and painful way to catch a fish) and all survive. But apparently they are also very tasty. This complicated art was once practiced by Samurai warriors, balancing on the rocks and developing skills that would help sharpen their concentration when not in battle.
Ayu fishing is also the favourite pastime of Yozo Shimano, and Ehara told me that at a recent sales conference he announced to the company that he wants to be able to spend less time working and more time fishing.
According to Ehara, Mr. Shimano is also a bit of a demon with the ayu pole too – a demon at the pastime that’s rather complicated on the inside, and simple on the outside.