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The Yankee Rickshaw

Fall 1991 | Volume 7 |  Issue 2

In certain small villages of western New York, the story is told that the origin of that most Japanese of vehicles, the rickshaw, lies in the Yankee ingenuity of a Baptist missionary.

The tale begins with a letter written in 1869 by Jonathan Goble, a missionary in Yokohama, Japan, to a wagonmaker named Frank Pollay. Pollay and Goble came from neighboring villages on Keuka Lake in upstate New York. According to legend, Goble asked Pollay to build him a two-wheeled, human-powered carriage in which Goble’s wife, an invalid, could be pulled around town. One was quickly built to Goble’s specifications and delivered.

Within a few years, with no patent laws to slow the process, the jinrikisha (as the Japanese called it) was being produced all over Japan. By 1876 there were nearly 136,000 in the country. It had an immediate impact on the Japanese economy, offering a badly needed means of transportation in the trade ports and a partial solution to growing unemployment.

Goble was furious over what he saw as theft of his idea and pressed his case for recognition as the inventor of the jinrikisha. He accused a former Japanese business associate of pirating the design, and for years he retold his tale of woe. Not surprisingly, the Japanese have a different story.

According to the Japanese version the jinrikisha was invented by three Tokyo tradesmen. Suzuki Tokujiro raised the idea with Izumi Yasuke in February 1869, and in July of that year, in partnership with a wagonmaker named Takayama Kosuke, they began building a prototype. By March 1870 they were manufacturing the vehicles.

As with most controversies over who is responsible for an invention, the correct answer here might well be neither. In 1867 a British diplomat in Japan described people riding in human-drawn freight carts. Some historians suggest that Goble got his idea from a picture of a baby carriage in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1860. And the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that the rickshaw “was probably based on the old French brouette” of the eighteenth century. Clearly the idea of a passenger cart pulled by a man was around long before Goble and Suzuki Tokujiro devised theirs.


Still, it’s clear that Goble did have such a cart built and imported at around the time the jinrikisha became widely popular. Admittedly, his letter to Pollay has not survived, and since Goble had acquired a reputation as an arrogant braggart, what he says about the case is not to be accepted without reservation. But Charles O. Shepard, United States consul in Yokohama at the time of the invention, wrote a quarter of a century afterward that the jinrikisha was unknown in Yokohama before Goble introduced it.

Furthermore, in 1952 a newspaper interviewed Andrew Wheeler, the grandson of a blacksmith in North Urbana, New York. Wheeler recalled visiting Pollay’s shop as a boy and seeing him take the wooden pattern for Goble’s carriage from the rafters. He also recalled that his grandfather had made iron castings for the vehicle. So as F. Calvin Parker, Goble’s biographer, says, “I think [Goble] has as good a claim as anyone else that he introduced the jinrikisha into Japan.” Whoever was responsible for its invention, the age of the jinrikisha was brief. By the early 1900s bicycle-powered cabs and motorized vehicles had reduced it to a tourist novelty. Today the true jinrikisha is virtually unknown.

Was the jinrikisha an early example of Asian manufacturers adapting a Western product? Was it a native Japanese invention for which a foreigner tried to grab the credit? Or was it a preexisting device that somebody reinvented just before it happened to explode in popularity? No one can say for sure. But in upstate New York, residents will tell you that the vehicle that came to symbolize a mysterious land half a world away originated on the shores of Keuka Lake.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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