Japan has unequivocally changed motorcycling. Since the first bikes rolled out in Japan from the NMC plant in 1909 (albeit utilizing a Triumph frame), the Japanese have been at the bleeding edge of two wheeled performance and design. We have compiled a list of the most iconic Japanese bikes of the modern era (90s onwards). This list it by no means comprehensive, feel free to comment on bikes you think deserve a place.
7th Place - Honda VFR800
Sure, the NSR400 had a single sided swingarm and the VFR750 was there first, but the 400 was a much a very much a sport bike. The 750 was the first attempt by Honda to venture into making a sports tourer, but the 800 is when they got it right. The styling and single sided swingarm obviously pokes at Italian bikes, on which this feature is more common place. It was able to do everything as well, being at home on long trips and able to do light track duty. The design of the 800 was hailed as somewhat radical, with a love it or hate it following; it was however unmistakable and has aged well, being able to look modern alongside current bikes. It’s just a shame that for 2014 Honda managed to cock it all up – the current model looks unremarkable, as if you gave a designer a brief to make a generic soft-sports bike. For shame.
6th Place - Suzuki M109 Boulevard
Japan’s first serous foray into the modern power cruiser market (previous bikes were bland and more traditional in their design). In terms of styling, it has a modern, swept back look which is somewhat reminiscent of the Harley Davidson V-Rod, but unlike the HD it features DNA from the GSX line of sport bikes. Couple that with a 1,783cc V-Twin, equipped with 4.4” pistons and you have a decent cruiser. Its weight proves to be its Achilles heel. Coming in at 321Kg, it’s no lightweight and unfortunately, the power to weight ratio suffers as a result. Not a drag strip demon by any stretch of the imagination (Suzuki have the Hyabusa for that), but an iconic and lasting design.
5th Place - Suzuki Hyabusa
The Suzuki GSX1300R Hyabusa came out in 1999 to annihilate all contenders. With a 0-60 of somewhere in the region of 2.6-2.8 seconds, contenders such as the Honda Blackbird were left scratching their heads whilst looking at the unconventionally designed fearing. When designing the Hyabusa Suzuki had in mind nothing but creating the best and most visually striking vehicle on two wheels... in the process they also ended up with the fastest. The first generation of the bike was so successful that the first production run lasted a whole eight years before the gen 2. At the time, its preposterous top speed almost single handedly ushered in the Japanese gentleman’s agreement on limiting speed to 300kph.
The second generation bike has had an even longer tenure, having been out since 2008 and rumors abound of the generation 3 making an appearance as mid as 2018. Its longevity and iconic looks have made it a staple for modifiers everywhere, with strong aftermarket support. Also, it's just at home on the ¼ mile as it is on the highway. The Hyabusa is an incredible example of Japanese engineering and an icon in the hyper sport bike segment.
4th Place - Kawasaki ZX14R
If the Hyabusa was the bike that kicked off the gentleman’s agreement, the ZX14R is the bike that tore it up, put it in a glass of 140 proof, consumed it, and spat out again whilst holding a flaming torch. If your face wasn’t melted from that, it sure will be when you ride this beast. From the front, the bike looks like an arachnid, not that you’ll care about the styling... when you’re the baddest kid on the block, there isn’t much to prove – you just have to be recognizable; and recognizable the ZX14R certainly is. After playing back and forth with the previous ZX14 model, trying desperately to beat the Hyabusa, Kawasaki finally gave in and with the R model. They developed a monster capable of eating asphalt, with all the electronic aids to make that meal an ease to consume.
3rd Place - Honda CBR Fireblade
If you want an accessible entry into large capacity super bikes, then Honda has your answer. Since 1992 when the CBR900RR came on the market with its then iconic twin headlights and red and blue fireblade color scheme (taking cues from the equally iconic MC22 CBR250RR ‘’Babyblade’’). Throughout its development cycle, Honda has placed a precedence for ease of riding for its road-going bikes. If you look at Japanese super-bike shootout articles from that era until now, the Honda is rarely the quickest around the track... but it’s comfortable, great handling and a hoot to ride. This has been somewhat remedied with the current models coming in race ready SP and SP2 packages. Now you can let your competition eat dust whilst you revel in the comfort and ergonomics of the current generation fireblade.
2nd Place - Yamaha YZF-R1 (First Gen)
A super bike is built with surgical precision to put smiles on faces and win races. The YZF-R1 was one of the best super bikes to come at the end of the 90’s and was characterized by its knife edge handling and throttle response. Unburdened by gadgets such as ABS and traction control that have now come to be standard on current bikes, riding the first generation R1 was like holding down an angry wild stoat – it was liable to bite back at any minute; and even when you thought you had it tamed, it was more than happy to prove to you that it wasn’t.
This wildness didn’t last. As early ass 2012, Yamaha fitted traction control as standard... concurrently making the bike faster whilst making it safer. However, much like the Dodge Viper of yesteryear, there is something special about having a machine you have to fight to get the most out of.
1st Place - Kawasaki H2R
Released in 2015 this bike singularly proves that the Japanese are still insane. This supercharged, 310+bhp, 400kph Vader-esque missile from Japan demonstrates just what can be built when all bets are taken off the table. At the end of the day, motorcycling is dangerous, or certainly MORE dangerous than any other method of commuting... the levels of insanity/danger/freedom that such a machine affords... and this machine furnishes all of these qualities in spades. An exercise in excess, this bike sets new standards as a halo model and paves the way forward for the next generation of two wheeled madness.