A History of the Rickshaw

Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

A History of the Rickshaw

Shy

A pulled rickshaw (or ricksha) is a mode of human-powered transportation by which a runner draws a two-wheeled cart which seats one or two people. Pulled rickshaws created a popular form of transportation and a source of employment for male laborers within Asian cities in the 19th century. Rickshaws are commonly made with bamboo and rubber tires. In recent times the use of rickshaws has been discouraged or outlawed in many countries due to concern for the welfare of rickshaw workers. Runner-pulled rickshaws have been replaced mainly by cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws.

The word rickshaw originates from the Japanese word jinrikisha (人力車, jin = human, riki = power or force, sha = vehicle), which literally means "human-powered vehicle". The initial rickshaws rode on iron-shod wooden wheels and the passenger sat on hard, flat seats. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, rubber or pneumatic rubber tires, spring cushions, and backrests improved the passenger's comfort. Other features, such as lights, were also added. But the most popular one is the cycle rickshaws which are made of wood with three tires.

Porao on Wikimedia

Rickshaws are commonly believed to have been first invented in Japan in the 1860s, at the beginning of a rapid period of technical advancement. In the 19th century, rickshaw pulling became an inexpensive, popular mode of transportation across Asia. Sources often credit Izumi Yosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro, and Takayama Kosuke, who are said to have invented rickshaws in 1868, inspired by the horse carriages that had been introduced to the streets of Tokyo shortly before. Starting in 1870, the Tokyo government issued a permission to build and sell rickshaws to these three men. The seal of one of these inventors was also required on every license to operate a rickshaw. By 1872, some 40,000 rickshaws were operating in Tokyo. They soon became the chief form of public transportation in Japan.

Around 1880, rickshaws appeared in India, first in Simla and then, 20 years later, in Calcutta which is presently known as Kolkata. Here they were initially used by Chinese traders to transport goods. In 1914, the Chinese applied for permission to use rickshaws to transport passengers. Soon after, rickshaws appeared in many big cities in Southeast Asia. Pulling a rickshaw was often the first job for peasants migrating to these cities.

The Rickshaw in Other Countries


d. FUKA on Wikimedia

When the Rickshaw was imported to China around 1873, it almost instantly became popular with the wealthy and as an employment opportunity for the working class. When the country was taken over by the communist party it was banned for a brief period but has recently become popular again as an electric powered vehicle. In Bangladesh, the rickshaw has been popular since it was introduced in the 1930s and have now present day evolved into electric vehicles.

Yanajin33 on Wikimedia

Japanese Rickshaws Today


Today man powered rickshaws are seen throughout Japan as a tourist attraction. Giving travelers a nostalgic cultural experience and feel like you have entered a different time in history. You can now find rickshaws around Tokyo, especially the Asakusa area. You can also ride them through the beautiful Nara Park watching green landscape and deer along the way.

David Stanley on Flickr

It was opportunities from inventions like this that helped propel Japan from a feudal society into the economic power it is today. If you get tired on your trip to Japan and want to rest your feet, I highly recommend riding a rickshaw. You can experience Japan through the back of a rickshaw and you'll never see Japan the same way again.