The origin of the jinrikisha is, to use a grandiloquent phrase, shrouded in obscurity. One native account attributes the spark of invention to a paralytic old gentleman of Kyōto, who, some time before 1868, finding his palanquin uncomfortable, took to a little cart instead. According to another version, one Akiha Daisuke, of Tōkyō, was the inventor, about 1870; but the first official application to be allowed to manufacture jinrikishas was made about the same time by a man called Takayama Kōsaku. The usual foreign version is that an American named Groble, half-cobbler and half-missionary, was the person to suggest the idea of a modified perambulator somewhere about 1867; and this has the support of Mr. Black, the author of Young Japan. In any case, the invention, once made, found wide-spread favour. There are now over 33,000 jinrikishas and 31,600 jinrikisha-men in Tōkyō alone; and the ports of China, the Malay peninsula, and India, as well as Japan, owe to the jinrikisha a fruitful source of employment for their teeming coolie population and of comfort for the well-to-do residents.
The compound word jinrikisha means literally "man-power-vehicle," that is, a vehicle pulled by a man, or, as the late Mr. Baber wittily suggested, a "pull-man-car." Some have imagined sha to be a corruption of the English "car." This is quite erroneous. Sha is a good old Chinese word. The poor word jinrikisha itself suffers many things at the hands of Japanese and foreigners alike. The Japanese generally cut off its tail and call it jinriki or else they translate the Chinese syllable sha into their own language, and call it kuruma. The English cut off its head and maltreat the vowels, pronouncing it rickshaw. One English dictionary actually gives it as jennyrickshaw!
An ordinary working jinrikisha costs a little over 30 yen, and will last three years if repaired a couple of times yearly. Handsome private jinrikishas may come to 45 or even 50 yen. The total cost of the outfit of a jinrikisha-man-coat, drawers, hat, and lantern all complete-is estimated at from 2 1/2 to 5 yen. The usual fare is from 15 to 25 sen per ri (2 1/2 miles English). Many men work on their own account, their one jinrikisha being their stock in trade. These are they that loiter about the street corners, waiting for a job. Others board with, and work for, a master, or-as the more patriarchal Japanese phrase has it-a "parent" (oya-kala), this master owning, it may be, ten or twenty jinikishas, and reckoning with his men twice monthly. In the large cities, a man may earn as much as 30 yen a month by this humble occupation, that is, more than the salary of many a small official of several years' standing, and with a far greater share of excitement, amusement, and independence. No wonder that fresh batches of lads from the country continually pour in to replace those whom consumption and heart-disease-the result of cold and over-exertion-only too swiftly remove from the busy scene. Jinrikishas are now largely exported to Shanghai and other places.
The heroes of the jinrikisha world are two men called Mukō- bata and Kitaga, who, in May, 1891, saved the life of the then Czarewitch (the present Czar) from an assassin's sword, and were forthwith almost smothered under the rewards and honours that poured down upon them, alike from their own sovereign and from the Russian Court. One of them unites virtue to good fortune; the other has given himself over to riotous living.