Rickshaw, Jinrikisha, timber / lacquerware / fabric / metal, Japan, 1880-1892
The rickshaw is a light, two-wheeled cart consisting of a doorless, chairlike body, mounted on springs with a collapsible hood and two shafts. Its invention in Japan by 1870 created a huge impact throughout the East as a convenient, mobile and speedy form of personal transport which predated the development of the motor car and bus. Few horses were used in Japan except in the army and occasionally in agriculture, and human labour was cheaper than equine. Their immediate popularity was considerable by the end of 1871 it was stated that 15,000 rickshaws were licensed in Tokyo alone and by the following year the number had increased to 40,000.
A rickshaw runner had a hard life, with rigorous competition, long hours and low pay. Often the vehicle he pulled was his whole world where he ate, slept and worked. His meagre possessions were kept in the compartment under the seat. These would have included a spare pair of straw sandals, a pipe and tobacco pouch and a paper lantern which he lit and hung on the shafts at night. Rickshaws always travelled in single file, and the runner in front called out the particulars of hazards to his comrades coming behind, such as quagmires, rice-laden carts and narrow bridges. The average speed of the rickshaw runner was 5 m.p.h. (8 km/h) and the usual distance covered was between 20 to 30 miles (32-48 km) per day. He ran at an easy gait and if the person being drawn was uncommonly heavy, or the route hilly, a second runner joined him either in pulling or pushing the rickshaw and the passenger was requested to pay an extra amount. It is little wonder that numbers of runners died early from heart and lung diseases. The rickshaw became very popular amongst the newly established middle class Japanese while some wealthy families employed their own runner for the family's exclusive use.
As new methods of transportation were developed in Japan including railways, buses, automobiles and river steamers, the demand for rickshaws gradually declined in the twentieth century. By 1938 there were only 13 000 in use although they had a brief revival after the end of World War II when there was an acute shortage of transport. However, they have now virtually disappeared as a form of pubic transport.
The Museum's rickshaw was purchased for the collection over a century ago when the rickshaw was approaching the height of its popularity in Japan. It is thought to have been manufactured in Japan in about 1880 although some replacement parts were probably added at a later date. As with many cultural items which were once in common use, very few rickshaws remain and the Museum's example is considered to be relatively rare.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry
Barr, Pat, "The Deer Cry Pavilion : the Story of Westerners in Japan 1868-1905", Macmillan, 1968.
Browne, G. Waldo, "Japan: The Place and the People", Sampson, Low and Marston Co.Ltd, London, 1904.
Brinkley, Captain F., (ed) "Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese", 2 vols, London, 1897.
Brinkley, Captain, F., "Japan: Its History Arts and Literature", Vol.II, T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1903.
There are several conflicting theories about the invention of the rickshaw. One theory in the "Encyclopaedia Americana" stated that it was invented by an American Baptist missionary in Yokohama, Japan, Jonathan Goble, who wanted a convenient mode of transport for his invalid wife. However, the Japanese are also credited with the idea as outlined in "Japan, Described and Illustrated" edited by Captain F. Brinkley in 1897, which says "a paralytic old gentleman of Kyoto finding his palanquin uncomfortable, built for himself a little cart which was the prototype of the present vehicle". Other sources including the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" say that the design of the rickshaw was probably based on the old French brouette which was a sedan chair converted into a man-pulled vehicle by the addition of springs and two wheels attached to a low axle. The brouette was popular for a short time as a hired vehicle in the 18th century, and flourished in France but not in England probably because sedan carriers there complained of the competition.
Despite all the theories regarding the invention the rickshaw, it had been developed in Japan by about 1868. The following year Yosuke Izumi, Tokujiro Suzuki and Kosuke Takayama began a trial manufacture of rickshaws in 1869 (Year 2 of the Meiji era) and in 1870 gained approval from the Municipality of Tokyo to go into production. Their rickshaws were initially used in the Nihonbashi area of central Tokyo.
The immediate popularity of the rickshaw was considerable. By the end of 1871 it was stated that 15,000 rickshaws were licensed in Tokyo alone and by the following year this number had increased to 40 000. The government decided to grant no further licences because they were ruining the trade of the boatmen on the canals. In spite of the boatmen's' conflicting interests, the number of rickshaws multiplied throughout the 1870s and the invention spread. It became the chief form of public transport in n Japan. As one British diplomat's wife remarked "rickshaws corresponded to omnibuses in London". The peak use of the rickshaw was reached in 1896 when 210 000 vehicles were recorded as being used daily in Japan. It was exported overseas from 1873, mainly to China and S.E. Asia and was especially popular in Shanghai where it was also manufactured. During the ensuing years the rickshaw gradually made its way south to Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo (now Sri Lanka) and Bombay (now Mumbai).
It is thought that the Museum's rickshaw was manufactured in Japan in about 1880 although some replacement parts were probably added at a later date.