Inside the Collection

Japanese rickshaw

Japanese rickshaw made 1880-1892
Japanese rickshaw made about 1880. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. H626. Purchased 1892.

One of the older and more unusual objects in our collection is the Japanese rickshaw which we’ve had at the Museum for 120 years. A rickshaw, or Jinrikisha, is a light, two-wheeled cart consisting of a doorless, chairlike body, mounted on springs with a collapsible hood and two shafts. Finished in black lacquer-ware over timber, it was drawn by a single rickshaw runner.

The rickshaw’s invention in Japan by 1870 created a huge impact throughout ¬†Asia as a convenient, mobile and speedy form of personal transport which predated the development of the car and bus. Few horses were used in Japan except in the army and occasionally in agriculture, as human labour was cheaper than equine. Their immediate popularity was considerable and by the end of 1871 it was estimated that some 15,000 rickshaws were licensed in Tokyo alone and by the following year the number had increased to 40,000.

Postcard featuring a rickshaw in 'Rangoon, Burma, c. 1900
Postcard featuring a rickshaw in ‘Rangoon, Burma, c. 1900. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. 98/29/1-3/13.

If you think your job’s tough pity the hard life of a rickshaw runner 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 a compartment under the seat. These might have included a spare pair of straw sandals, a pipe and tobacco pouch and a paper lantern which he lit and hung on the rickshaw 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 about 8 km/h and the usual distance covered was from 32 to 48 km each day. He ran at an easy gait and if the person being drawn was overweight 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’s little wonder that many 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.

Rickshaws with pneumatic-tyred bicycle wheels 1933-1946
Rickshaws with pneumatic-tyred bicycle wheels, photograph by Hedda Morrison, Peking, China, 1933-1946. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. 92/1414-211.

As new methods of transport were introduced in Japan including railways, buses, cars 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 and fuel.

The Museum’s rickshaw was purchased in 1892 when the rickshaw was approaching the height of its popularity in Japan. It’s thought to have been manufactured in Japan from about 1880 although some replacement parts were probably added at a later date. As with many everyday items which were once in common use, very few rickshaws remain and the Museum’s example is considered to be quite rare.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport


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