Things I Didn’t Expect About Japan: The “Mama Chari”

Today I’m going to talk to you about a phenomena that is ubiquitous in Japan. So much so that it is one of the nation’s defining features. Go to any city in Japan and you’ll find these in abundance.

I am of course talking about the “mama chari.” The title given to the bicycle of course in Japan. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words (although I notice they still chose to say it). Anyway here’s what mama chari looks like.

A Japanese guy on his mama chari

Photo courtesy of OMF

The lack of an article in that previous sentence was deliberate. All mama chari look like that. Actually, most I’ve seen are black. That kid must be some sort of crazy rebel.

I have had many an adventure involving mama chari.

Like the time I left one outside a Tsutaya store (I’ll explain in another post) and came back after a few hours to find it gone. At first I thought I had just forgotten where I’d parked it. But since all bikes look the same I had gotten used to memorizing the exact spot where I parked my bike – down to the nearest metre.

This was the day I discovered that although people park their bikes everywhere – and by ‘park’ I mean hastily abandon with the intent of reclaiming them at some future point – it is technically illegal to do so. There are signs to inform you of this, but I couldn’t read them. Not because of my lack of Japanese. No, because the bikes covered them up.

These signs helpfully include maps to direct you to the holding pen where you can bail out your bike. I explained to the folks guarding the bike prison that I was an ignorant foreigner (as if it wasn’t obvious!) and they in turn explained that meant I paid a slightly lower fine.

Another thing about bikes in Japan is the way people ride them. Or rather the things people do whilst riding them. I have seen – swear down on my mama chari’s life – a man riding a bike whilst carrying an umbrella and reading a book. This combination is, I hope, quite rare. But people using their phones whilst cycling is fairly common. Same for umbrellas.

Oh, and the only people who wear bike helmets in Japan are Mormons. Seriously, I don’t know a single Japanese person who owns a helmet. I don’t even know where the Mormons buy them from.

Anyway, people often ask what shocked me when I first went to Japan. Topping the list would be mama chari.

Why? Well because they are examples of those random things that you don’t expect from a culture and that generally get ignored in books on culture.

So I went out to Japan knowing about group decision-making and the importance of ‘face.’ I was prepared for a super-efficient transport system and a totally different diet. I was informed about lots of the cultural rules. I even had some knowledge of the Meiji reformation.

But nobody warned me about the mama chari !

I understand why. They aren’t particularly interesting.

Except that they are one of the quirks of Japan’s personality. I don’t love them. I don’t hate them. But they are part of Japan. And I like that. So here’s the to mama chari! Not good, not bad, just unexpected.

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5 thoughts on “Things I Didn’t Expect About Japan: The “Mama Chari”

  1. Cathryn

    The thing that most struck me about Japanese bikes was that the baby seats carry BIG kids! I checked, and their weight limit is 60lbs whereas in the West it’s 40…which means I could carry the Dude on my bike in Japan for a few more years! Deeply jealous of that!

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  2. Wendy

    Actually mama chari are getting quite colourful these days! Black and silver are definitely becoming rarer. Some Japanese people wear helmets, but it is usually only the serious cyclists (complete with lycra costumes).

    What do we need here is a photo of the mama chari that mums ride, like Cathryn implies. Super duper bikes with two kids seats, plus an umbrella, maybe even a cup holder. Also increasingly common are “powered” bikes. They look almost the same, but they give you more oomph for your pedal.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      Really? Wow, go away from Japan for a few years and I’m totally out of touch with the mama chari culture! I will look out for colorful mama chari on my return.

      I was hoping for some better photos of folks on bikes. Sadly, I’m not much of a photographer, so my photo stock is very limited. If you manage to snap more exciting mama chari setups do let me know (^_^)

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