Most of us have ridden a Kawasaki Ninja, Suzuki Katana or Honda Varadero at some time, but do you know what the name actually means? Here’s our guide to some of the most unusual Japanese motorcycle names…
OK, an easy one to start off with. We’re all probably familiar with the ‘Ninja’ name, as trademarked by Kawasaki and used on most of its sportsbikes since the first GPZ900R (pictured) in 1984. Most of us also know that its name derives from that of the usually all-black clad Japanese spies or mercenaries that operated from the middle ages on in feudal Japan. Less-well known, though, is the fact that, due to the amount of folklore that grew up around them, Ninja are often thought to have had special powers such as invisibility or being able to walk on water.
The ‘Blackbird eater’ – no, seriously. Again, most probably know that when Suzuki launched its speed king GSX1300R in 1999 which, among other things, was specifically designed to wrest the title of world’s fastest production motorcycle from Honda’s reigning CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, it was also given the name ‘Hayabusa’, which is Japanese for ‘Peregrine Falcon’, a bird which has the fastest vertical dive of all. Fewer, however, are aware, as Suzuki was, that the peregrine falcon’s usual choice of prey is, actually, blackbirds, which naturally suited the Japanese firm’s intentions perfectly.
(It has to be said, however, that Honda’s Super Blackbird wasn’t named after a bird, but after the USAF’s super-fast SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane…)
Ever thought some Japanese custom bikes are a bit, well, ‘girly’? Maybe there’s a subconscious reason for that. Between 1981 (when the first XV750 was launched) and 2007 most Yamaha V-twin cruisers also had the name Virago – which is also the name for a heroic warrior woman. Even more bizarrely it also alludes to transgenderism. Derived from Latin, ‘Vir’ means ‘man’ while the ‘ago’ suffix regenders the word to mean female. In other words in normal English the word Virago, like ‘mannish or amazonian’, is used to describe women who act aggressively or like men. Joan of Arc, who wore men’s clothes, is a classic ‘Virago’. So is an XV535 (pictured).
Another fairly simply one – right? Apart from being the name given by Suzuki to its radically-styled, GSX-based sportsters from 1981, Katanas were one of the traditionally made swords used by the Samurai military and noble caste of feudal Japan. So far so good but there’s more. Since that original, Target-designed superbike, Suzuki has since also applied the name, particularly in North America, to its range of less-memorable sports-tourers. Katana swords, meanwhile, though still made in Japan, are banned in the UK as an offensive weapon - unless they are pre-1954, in which case they are deemed collectables.
Yam’s adventure bike model name is something to do with the desert, right? Well yes, but there’s more to it, too. Applied to the production, Paris-Dakar replicas of Yamaha’s XT trailies from 1983, the first was the XT600Z Tenere, and was inspired by Cyril Neveu’s victories for Yamaha in the famous desert race in 1979 and 1980 on a modified XT500. That first production bike was basically a big-bore XT550 with a huge, rally-style, 30-litre tank and race livery. A huge success it spawned many others and the Tenere name lives on in Yamaha’s range to this day. The name, however, is that applied to a vast plain within the Sahara desert covering over 150,000 square miles and is a local, Berber word that literally means ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’, in the same way that ‘Sahara’ is simply the Arabic name for ‘desert’.
How many of you had forgotten about this one? Kawasaki’s short-lived, KLR-650-based, late Eighties adventure-styled machine was hardly a roaring commercial success, partly as Kawasaki themselves, unlike its three Japanese rivals, had no Paris-Dakar pedigree whatsoever. But although the bike (basically the 651cc, single-cylinder trailie with a big tank and fairing) was fairly useful, it only lived from 1987 to 1988 and the name wasn’t used again. That name, incidentally, is quite poetic, being Japanese for ‘Beyond the heavens’ or ‘A distant land’. How sweet.
A more simple or straightforward one, this. Inazuma is simply Japanese for ‘lightning flash’, which is all well and good until you realize Suzuki has applied it over the years to probably some of the least ‘lightning flash’-like motorcycles ever conceived. The first was the rather inconsequential GSX750 Inazuma roadster, Suzuki’s belated response to Kawasaki’s 750 Zephyr in the mid-1990s and mostly only available in the UK as a grey import so you’re unlikely to see many. More recently it’s also been the name of the Japanese firm’s even duller, 24bhp, 250cc, twin cylinder commuter. Definitely worthy, but lightning flash? I don’t think so.
OK, it’s not used as much as some, partly because of the word’s association in Europe with a WWII plot to overthrow Hitler, but Valkyrie is still familiar in being used on a number of Honda’s GoldWing based cruisers – the latest being the F6C. Interestingly, however, the name’s derivation has nothing to do with Germany, Japan or even the US and instead is from Norse mythology, being spiritual female, horse-riding figures who choose, in battle, those who live and die. Nice. In addition, mythological Valkyries also sometimes appear as the lovers of heroes or daughters of royalty. Better, but I think I still prefer the F6C.
Another Japanese adventure-styled bike with a name of mysterious origin. Launched in 2001, Honda’s Firestorm V-twin powered successor to its 750cc Africa Twin may have lacked the kudos of its predecessor and not been without its faults, but it still gained a steady following until it was finally deleted in 2010. Honda has now returned to the iconic original with the launch of the new CRF1000 Africa Twin last year. The Varadero name, meanwhile, as also applied to the cute, mini V-twin powered XL125V, comes not from Africa but, of all places, Cuba, where it is a famous resort area.
Last, but by no means least, is probably the most iconic Japanese motorcycle name of all – so it’s something of a mystery why it’s not been used since. ‘Samurai’ was the name given to one of Kawasaki’s most significant early models – the A1, a 250cc two-stroke twin sold between 1967 and 1971. Unusual in using rotary disc-valve induction, it was one of the fastest bikes of its day. The loss of the name came, however, when it was superceded by Kawasaki’s new range of two-stroke triples. The name, which applies to Japan’s historic military and nobility caste during the country’s feudal era, although used on some Suzuki cars, has not been used since.