To call Oki Tatsuya a bicycle messenger doesn’t really do justice to a man who’s been at the heart of Tokyo’s urban bike scene since the end of the nineties. Lee Basford caught up with him late one night in Tokyo.
You have a life that’s immersed in bike culture, how did you first get started?
In the beginning it was BMX, but that led to other things because I loved discovering new worlds, I was constantly thinking about small journeys, either by foot or by bike — finding the next train station, the next town, wanting to reach the end of the river or cycle to the ocean — always wanting to see something new. Our family moved to the country just as I was starting junior high school, which was great as I found new friends who loved touring, mountain biking, camping and fishing. Sometimes we’d camp and ride — I was about fifteen then. This led to working to get money for new bike parts or camping gear, I worked really early in morning as a paperboy to fund my obsession. After graduating high school I wanted to ride further, for longer than a day, but for this I needed money, so I worked almost every day; In the early morning as a newspaper boy and at the weekend either at a moving company or building contractor. These jobs were good for me, working with older people at the moving company I learned a lot about respect and manners. The building contractors too, they were a highly skilled team building traditional houses and restaurants — even though everyone worked well as a team they were all very independent and had their own unique skills.
How did all of this lead you to become a messenger in Tokyo?
While I was at university I had a lot of part time jobs, all kinds of things. By the time I was twenty-one I was looking for something new, I still had a love for traveling so I decided to become a motorcycle courier in Tokyo. But getting to the city it was unbelievably disappointing to see these couriers, they had no style at all, it just wasn’t cool. While I was walking around I kept noticing bicycle messengers, which was a revelation to me, so I did some quick research and called T-serv, one of the two messenger companies in Tokyo that were established in 1989. When I started in 1997 there were about 50 messengers, all young and crazy with energy to burn, but compared to now that number’s pretty small. After the movie ‘Messenger’ came out in 2000 it really boomed in Tokyo and by 2007 there were about 500 messengers here.
You’re currently operating for the messenger company ‘Courier’ in Tokyo?
I work as a messenger at Courier, the owner is Katz, a legendary Tokyo messenger who started in the early 90’s. These days I mainly work as a dispatcher and dealing with accounts and other jobs. When things are very busy though I ride; a full day as a messenger would be about 80km of riding and 4km walking. If I spend half a day in the office and the rest on the bike I’d cover around 40km.
And you still find time to be a producer of The Bicycle Film Festival in Tokyo?
I’m a co-producer at the Bicycle Film Festival (BFF) along with Satoshi Ichiyanagi from the fashion company Alexander Lee Chang. The film festival has been in Tokyo since 2005 with various people involved since the beginning, now there’s a core team of 5–7 people and between 15–20 people who help out with the event, we’re all volunteers. I do most of the work in the evening after I’ve finished my courier work.
You also said you were involved with Sugino in the early days of messenger culture in Japan.
Around 2005 I met Kozo Sugino the CEO at that time, he was really interested in messenger culture and introduced me to a lot of people, one of them organised track events at the Keiokaku Velodrome where they hold some of the biggest Keirin races in Japan. It’s pretty much unheard of for people outside of the sport to be allowed on the track but here we were able to ride together with track racers. Some messengers joined us, so we started training to ride in the velodrome. I guess fixed bikes were becoming very popular as part of street culture at that time and Keirin sensed that.
Sugino is one of few companies certified to make NJS parts, mainly cranks, chain rings and bottom brackets. Kozo Sugino not only reinvented his own company but also helped other NJS manufacturers like Nitto, MKS, Gran Compe and others. I was introduced to a lot of people in the bike industry through him too, I think they sensed what was happening in street and fashion culture and the ‘NJS Boom’ and wanted to be part of it.
He can be singled out as one of the people responsible for the street bicycle trend here, sharing feedback from the street with the other manufacturers but also listening to fashion tastemakers who didn’t particularly understand bikes but encouraged him to collaborate with fashion companies, making limited edition parts and colours across the range of products. He also had a hand in progressing the export of NJS parts.
He’s done so many great things for the Japanese bicycle industry, like Daisuke from Rapha, he’s always creating something new, looking to the future and developing a strong cycling scene that goes hand in hand with the products they’re selling. In a similar way, through the messenger community and BFF Tokyo we’ve connected with so many different groups of people, I really want to use this diversity to create a strong Tokyo bike community.
You’re good friends with Daisuke Yano of Rapha Japan?
I help out with all kinds of things with Rapha here. I met Daisuke in 2007 at the ‘Chie Matsuri’ messenger event in Kyoto and somehow ended up on the same team as him in one of the events — we’ve been friends ever since. He had only recently started things with Rapha in Japan and was still working part time at CatEye. Later that year, while I was in London on the way to the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) in Dublin he set up a meeting with Simon Mottram for me and some friends to interview and photograph him for a Japanese cycle magazine called BicycleNavi. We were in London for three days and we met Simon at the original Imperial Works in Kentish Town over the weekend — we were the only people there. I remember the place was impressive, but it wasn’t huge and the office and storage space were all in one room. After this trip, through Daisuke, we asked Rapha to be one of the sponsors of the Bicycle Film Festival in Tokyo. We collaborated producing some very limited cycling caps for the event in 2008 and in 2009. We also screened two movies by Brian Vernor as well as an exhibition of his photographs from the Rapha Continental Rides, in collaboration with Paul Smith.
You brought the Cycle Messenger World Championships to Japan too?
In 2005 the Cycle Messenger World Championships had just taken place in New York and the first Tokyo Bicycle Film Festival (BFF) was that year too. I’d organised small races and events, and been looking for a chance to organise larger messenger events too. My friend Gogo and I gathered support from companies, local shops and friends and we managed to hold the CMWC in Tokyo. We formed the Tokyo Bike Messenger Association (TKBMA) which had 17 members at its peak. There was so much to deal with, so many forms to submit to government organisations; the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry, Tokyo Prefecture Council, the Metropolitan Police Department, not to mention negotiating with sponsors day and night, and still working as a messenger when I could. Courier really supported me — it was a huge commitment, for almost six months I was surviving on only 3 hours sleep a night, tough times but all worth it.
This interview originally appeared in the Rapha Survey series.