Electric-assist bicycles originated in Japan and underwent differentiated development in China and Europe. Japan was the pioneer in developing, manufacturing, and selling e-bikes. In the 1990s, Yamaha of Japan invented the electric-assist bicycle (known as PAS, Power Assist System), which combined human and electric power, essentially creating what is now known as an ‘e-bike’. For a long time, e-bikes in Japan maintained a steady high growth trend. However, as the global market gradually saturates, the Japanese e-bike market and the bicycle purchase volume among the Japanese population are on the decline.
Decline in E-Bike Sales
Due to its hilly terrain, bicycles have become the most convenient mode of transportation for daily travel in Japan. The Japanese bicycle market has consistently shown growth. Since the introduction of high-end sporty e-bikes in 2015, the growth of e-bikes accelerated from 2016 onwards. The market share of e-bikes increased year by year. In 2021, the total bicycle market size in Japan reached 842,900 units, with the e-bike market size at 657,700 units, accounting for 78.02%. However, in 2022, e-bike sales experienced a decline for the first time.
Influenced by the high inventory in the global e-bike market, e-bike sales in Japan dropped by 8.8% compared to 2021, reaching 600,100 units. As bicycles have been popular for a long time and have a high acceptance rate among the public, the proportion of e-bike production in the bicycle market has already reached 82.1%. The decline in sales has also led to a 3.8% decrease in the total production value of e-bikes. Sales of lightweight bicycles in Japan have also been declining year by year, which is related to the decrease in the number of cyclists. Although bicycle penetration is high in Japan, the declining population has led to reduced purchasing, with domestic deliveries dropping by 16.1% in 2022.
China as the Primary Supplier
Japan is a major country for e-bike sales and bicycle imports. In recent years, both domestic production and imports in Japan have declined. Production of lightweight bicycles in Japan decreased by 26.7% to 93,000 units, and imports decreased by 14.5% to 1.13 million units. China is Japan’s primary import source, with 88% of Japan’s bicycle demand relying on imports. Mainland China and Taiwan together account for 99% of Japan’s bicycle imports. According to JPBI data, the total number of imported e-bikes was 234,000 in 2019, with 98.2% (230,000 units) being imported from China.
The increase in the value of imported products from Japan indicates that the prices of Chinese export products are also rising. The value of domestically produced lightweight bicycles in Japan decreased by 56%, while the value of Chinese imported goods increased by 10.4%. This suggests that Chinese export products are no longer low-end items in the production chain, but are developing toward higher value and higher-end trends.
Changes in Japanese Bicycle Prices
As demand grows in diversity, the prices of e-bikes have been trending upwards. Apart from rising material prices, lifestyle changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also contributed to rising bicycle prices. The features of electric-assist products have continuously improved, and component performance has also increased. E-bikes capable of long-distance riding, in particular, are favored by consumers. A survey by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications showed that in July 2022, bicycle prices increased by more than 70% compared to 20 years ago. The average price of each e-bike sold in Japan that year was around 96,200 yen.
Additionally, the price of lightweight e-bikes also rose by 74%. The same survey in July 2022 revealed that the average unit price of bicycles in cities and towns with municipal offices and cities with populations exceeding 150,000 was 445,900 yen. This marks the highest price level in nearly a decade, showing a 74% increase compared to the price of 256,380 yen in July 2002.
Main Users of Bicycles in Japan
Compared to the diverse product demands in Europe and the United States, such as long-distance travel, mountain sports, daily commuting, and fitness, Japanese e-bikes tend to prioritize practicality. Especially in large cities with severe traffic congestion, many Japanese people opt for bicycles as a means of transportation. Bicycles’ compactness and flexibility make them a convenient and efficient mode of travel in cities, allowing riders to avoid traffic jams and crowded subways. Therefore, commuters and housewives form the main driving force of the market. Japanese people stated, ‘Starting from about 5 to 6 years ago, the number of people buying bicycles for daily use, such as commuting to work or school, has increased.’ Whether for work, school, shopping, or leisure, bicycles can be the best mode of transportation.
Moreover, the silver generation pursuing spiritual enjoyment has become a driving force in the rapid growth of high-end e-bikes. In many Japanese cities and tourist destinations, bike lanes are well-developed, giving rise to a community of cycling enthusiasts. This group is enthusiastic about cycling and has propelled the bicycle movement and fitness attributes.