Part 1: Beginnings

For about a decade, beginning in 1973, thousands of high-quality Sekine bicycles were manufactured near Rivers, Manitoba at the Oo-za-we-Kwun Centre in facilities that were once part of one of the most important Air Force Bases in Canada.

The story of the Sekine Bicycle Company in Canada is a story that brings together many threads of the larger history of our community, our nation, and our trade relationships with the outside world. Japan was not a notable trading partner in the early part of the 20th century, and as the decades progressed it became our enemy in the Second World War.  So the creation of the Sekine Corporation in Japan had little impact internationally.

Chuzo Sekine from Tokyo began manufacturing bicycles in Arakawa in 1912. It was a small enterprise in Japan’s domestic market for some time and little detail is available about its operations. We do know that in 1950 the Sekine Company received a Japanese Trade Industry Award and that in 1962 they passed an industrial standards examination. 

The city of Arakawa was a working class, industrial community and the original Sekine’s were designed for practical transportation. Cars were not common and bikes were used for getting to work and running errands.  The early Sekine’s often had very large baskets or bins attached. This was long before biking became primarily a recreational activity.

Winnipeg filmmaker Derek Eidse interviewed Michio Kimura, who used to be the head engineer for Sekine Canada, as well as the assistant to the President of Sekine Canada.  He knew the original Mr. Sekine from Arakawa, Japan.

He was known as a very humble man, and it was said of him that, “The lower he bowed, the more money he made.”  As a businessman he had an eye for detail and quality, and would regularly send raw materials back to suppliers if it didn’t meet his approval. 

The product evolved with the times. Bikes made in the 50’s were far from glamorous. They were heavy dependable vehicles, built to last. But they also had distinctive detailing that carried over into the modern era when bikes became more about recreation than about mere transportation.

In 1968, Sekine’s new factory in Saitama Prefecture was the most modern bicycle production facility in Japan. In 1969, the product was selected as, “the best designed bicycle by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan.

A bicycle shop in Japan – practical transportation for working people.

After the Second World War, however, Japan slowly became more economically connected to the west. For some time  “Made in Japan” was synonymous with low cost and many of its industries focused on mass production of inexpensive consumer goods. Low wages and other costs gave it an advantage over North American and European producers. This began to turn around in the camera and electronics industries in the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day when Japanese manufactured goods, from cars to guitars, are known for quality and workmanship.

As the 1970s opened, the U.S. market for adult bicycles was basically owned by the French and English. While Japanese bicycles were manufactured to very tight tolerances, and nicely finished (considerably better than their European competition), the Japanese had not yet come to terms with the average American's being taller and heavier than the average Japanese. (This gap was wider at the time than it is now, due to the privations the Japanese population suffered during and after the war.)

This plant, built in 1968 in Tokyo, Japan produces the Japanese – made Sekines

Just as Sekine began developing models that would attract buyers in the American / Canadian market, the market itself expanded. Biking was no longer just for kids. Fitness was becoming fashionable, and recreational bike use was taking off. The economy was strong, wages were increasing, and people had both the leisure and the resources to pursue more recreational activities. Amongst the dedicated cyclists a quality bike was a necessity, and a status symbol. The Sekine became the BMW of the youthful, fitness conscious urban professional.

That change in lifestyles along with the general growth of international trade spelled success for Sekine. What had started as a small but successful business supplying the local market, was now becoming an international player in an expanding field.

By the early seventies, both Canada and the United States began importing bicycles from Europe and Japan, and the demand kept growing.

About that time the Canadian government, feeling pressure from a major domestic bicycle manufacturer who happened to have a bit of a strangle hold on the Canadian bicycle market at the time, elected to impose an import tariff on bicycles coming into the country.  This was a standard economic tactic in that era when countries tried to protect their industries by making the price of imports artificially higher. What we now call globalization was about to change all of that, but for a time the strategy was successful in keeping jobs at home.

In this case, however, the tariff did not apply to bicycle parts, just complete bicycles.  With this loophole in mind, foreign companies, such as Raleigh, Peugeot and Sekine set up shop on Canadian soil.  Sekine lead the way and was soon exploring options that would allow it to manufacture in Canada and thus circumvent the tariff, while still using Japanese-made parts. It was seen as a win-win. Sekine capitalized on the expanding market with increased production of parts, Canada got the jobs and other associated benefits of assembling those parts here. 

The pieces of the puzzle were coming together – the increased design expertise at Sekine headquarters, the growing popularity of cycling, and the need to be competitive in a foreign land.

At the same time (1969) the Canadian Government began to focus on a proactive approach to the economy of Canadian manufacturing. DREE, the Department of Regional Economic Expansion was created to spur growth in regions that required it. Grants and loan guarantees were the tools it would use to promote industry

Timing is everything, and there was one more component needed.

In 1973 it just so happened that the recently closed Canadian Forces base near Rivers Manitoba, was home to the Oo-Za.We-Kwun Centre, a project with a twofold purpose. Its mission was to provide industrial training for Aboriginal Manitobans while providing a new lease on life for the recently abandoned base with its wide variety of infrastructure. So, right here in Rivers Manitoba, we had both a supply of workers and a ready infrastructure for a manufacturing enterprise.

The Oo-Za.We-Kwun (Yellow Quill) display at a parade in Rivers – mid 70’s

So it was that an Asian business giant would partner up with the Canadian government and a First Nation business group, to use that available space to create and market the Canadian made Sekine bicycle.