Harley-Davidson Honors ‘Tsunami Bike’

The "Tsunami Bike" on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee stands as a memorial to those lost in the 2011 Japan earthquake.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The site of a broken down, rusted out motorcycle doesn’t usually inspire a sense of solemn wonder. That said, if the sight and the story behind a new motorcycle exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum doesn’t move you, there just might be something missing inside your heart.

Ikuo Yokoyama was a proud owner of a 2004 Harley-Davidson FXSTB Softail Night Train – so much so that he customized his iron horse with aftermarket parts other personal flares. It was part of Yokoyama’s everyday life in Northern Japan.

Any semblance of that “everyday life” dissolved into the sea on March 11, 2011 as a massive offshore earthquake sent a tsunami sweeping over seaside communities – killing more then 20,000 people and washing an estimated 20 million tons of debris out into the raging Pacific. Yokoyama lost his home and loved ones that day.

And, he lost his bike.

Though still struggling to come to grips with the scope of the cataclysm more than a year later, researchers believe an approximate 2 million tons of that decimated flotsam and jetsam sank to the ocean floor over the days that followed. But, the rest is still out there on the water – continuing to wash ashore across the hemispheres.

On April 12, 2012, Canadian beach comber Peter Mark was exploring isolated oceanfronts along the eastern shoreline of Graham Island off the coast of British Columbia. He discovered a large, badly battered shipping container – the transportable variety rented by customers to store or move everything from cars to furniture.

It was badly damaged, but upright as its weight nuzzled it into the wet sand. On closer inspection, Mark discovered it was open – its door all but knocked off their hinges by a pounding of sea water.

Inside rested a rusted, scarred but otherwise largely intact 2004 Harley-Davidson FXSTB Softail Night Train.

Mark had no idea who it belonged to, but the Japanese characters on its foreign license plate offered a clue as to its origin.

“It dawned on me that this was something that might be in my backyard; something that one of my neighbors might own,” Mark said in a statement to Harley-Davidson. “These were somebody’s belongings; somebody that might have lost everything – even their life.”

The staggering length of the motorcycle’s journey is made only more stunning when one considers the odds against the Softail very being found by a human being. Call it coincidence, strange fortune or fate, but any rational look at the events insists there’s no way this motorcycle should have been found again after calamity sent it seaward.

While something as large and heavy as a steel shipping container could easily sink – especially with a road-ready Harley-Davidson packed inside it – the container stayed afloat for more than 4,000 miles. There was just enough air and protective foam in the metal container to maintain buoyancy. There’s no way of knowing the sea swells the bike had to navigate, but an ocean storm could’ve easily swallowed up the container, no matter what was inside it.

Even while staying afloat, the container could’ve easily lost its two-wheeled contents. But the motorcycle was just large enough not to escape from the torn gaps in the container doors. Though the rolling sea banged it up a bit, its frame is intact enough to withstand restoration. In short, it still looks like a Harley.

Rather than wash ashore on the western coast of North America, the container made landfall on the eastern shore of Graham Island off the British Columbia sea line. That means the container had to approach the British Columbia coast before looping around again and heading back out to sea before running into its eventual island destination.

Once there, the motorcycle came to rest on a rugged, abandoned beach. Mark found it on a stretch lost on any tourist map. As the saying goes, “You don’t get there unless you’re going there.” If the right man (a veteran beach scavenger with knowledge of the unpopulated areas of the region) hadn’t come along at the right place at the right time, the bike could’ve been lost under the muddy sands – or could still be sitting there rusting this very day.

Working with news agencies, Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada and Harley-Davidson Japan, representatives managed to trace the bike’s license plate back its owner, Yokoyama. Currently living in temporary housing in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Yokoyama stands shoulder to shoulder with other survivors as he struggles to rebuild his life.

When officials from Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee headquarters offered to return the motorcycle to him, Yokoyama declined. When Harley-Davidson offered to restore the bike and return it to him, he declined. Every time Harley-Davidson has offered to replace the Softail, he declined.

Instead, at Yokoyama’s request, the Tsunami Bike was packed up without repair or restoration and shipped to The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. It stands in a specially dedicated exhibit largely as Mark found it in April.

The Museum’s Brook G. Smith explained that Yokoyama asked to have the motorcycle preserved in its current condition and displayed as a memorial to those whose lives were lost or forever changed by the 2011 tsunami.

According to Smith, Yokoyama “was grateful for the offer (of returning the bike) and touched by the outpouring of support from Harley riders around the world.

Multiple sources at Harley-Davidson have repeatedly indicated that their offers to return some token of appreciation to Yokoyama – to get him riding again – will remain open for as long as V-Twins are rolling out of Milwaukee.

The Tsunami Bike will remain on display at the museum indefinitely, and at least through this year’s 110th Harley-Davidson Anniversary Celebration.