Japan has always been a country of contradictions. On the one hand, it is one of the most respected watchmaking countries along with Switzerland and Germany, but that status is only due to a trio of highly prolific companies: Seiko, Citizen and Casio. And despite that status and generally strong appreciation for watches, you won’t find the vibrant watchmaking scene of startups you see in countries like France, Britain and the United States — but there are some lesser-known Japanese gems.
There are indeed a few Japanese watch brands that you should know about, but they are definitely worth understanding. They include examples of up-and-coming independents alongside those big companies, and together they exemplify the qualities Japan is known for.
It is a country known for craftsmanship, quality, sometimes whimsical design, expensive tastes and fastidious attention to detail. That’s why Made-in-Japan products, from jeans to sunglasses and many others, are widely recognized around the world as the best in their respective fields. Which characteristics are more suitable for watchmaking? And you will indeed find these qualities in varying degrees in the products of Japanese watch brands.
From industrial-scale watchmaking powerhouses to interesting indie brands increasingly popping up in their shadows, the following companies paint a picture of modern Japanese watchmaking.
Founded in 1881, Seiko is a historic watchmaker and one of the most important in Japan. Although once known primarily for affordable, mass-produced watches, Seiko today enjoys international respect and fame. It is a huge company that competes in every style and price point found in the watch industry through a series of brands and sub-brands. It develops and produces all of its own technology and products, from materials and mechanical movements to solar-charging and GPS tech. Under the Seiko umbrella, Grand Seiko and Credor are often marketed as independent brands, while sub-brands such as Prospecs, Presage, Astron, King Seiko and Seiko 5 Sports each have individual identities. Seiko is a vast universe worth exploring no matter what kind of watch buyer you are.
Along with Seiko, Citizen is Japan’s other big manufacturer of traditional watches, but its structure and approach are very different. Citizens owns Miota, a maker of mechanical movements that power affordable watches from a wide range of third-party brands. Citizen-branded watches, however, focus more on battery-powered quartz with a light-charging technology called Eco-Drive. Also under its umbrella is the high-end Campanola brand and the Promaster sub-brand. As a corporation, Citizen owns a range of brands not traditionally associated with or considered Japanese, from Bulova to several Swiss watchmakers.
Casio is the third pillar of Japanese watchmaking, but it fills a different niche than the two above. Its full name is Casio Computer Co., Ltd. And it tells you right away that it’s not in the traditional watch business. Of course, Casio is known for its digital watches. Be it affordable, analog or digital, Casio sees its most important sub-brand as the famously rugged G-Shock, but you’ll also find watches branded Edifice, Oceanus, Baby-G and Pro-Trek. The company also manufactures calculators and musical instruments.
Since Orient belongs to one of the Seiko Group corporations, it is sometimes misunderstood. Other brands in the group include Seiko Watch Co. Although under, in the corporate classification, Orient is under Epson. Unlike other Seiko watch brands, Orient was bought by Seiko rather than created. It now shares technology and resources with its parent and sibling companies, but also has its own identity, history, product and movement. It also has its own sub-brand: Orient Star, which offers a more premium product than the affordable beaters you might expect branded Orient.
Hajime Ahsoka One of Japan’s few independent high-end watchmakers, and Kurono is an international-facing sub-brand (noticing a trend among Japanese companies?) he created to offer his fans more affordable watches. Kurono watches typically use sourced Miyota automatic movements and feature the finishing and art-deco that characterize Asoka’s high-end pieces. The watches are usually produced in small batches, which sell out quickly online.
Mines is a young brand that is slowly gaining recognition outside of Japan. Starting as Kyowa Co., it originally manufactured tools and made watch parts for other brands. It finally started manufacturing full watches in 2005 and named the brand after its hometown. Mines produces its own parts and uses the same famous polishing technique that Grand Seiko is known for. With a couple of collections, Minas signature look is based on a complex case that accentuates views of the three-dimensional dials. With prices ranging from a couple to a few thousand dollars, the brand uses automatic movements sourced from ETA, which are decorated in-house.
Now here is a brand that looks similar to the microbrands we see in other countries. Kuo (The e Quiet) is based in Kyoto and offers a range of retro-inspired watches with pleasingly small diameters. Like many American and other boutique brands, Kuoe uses original Japanese automatic movements and emphasizes local pride. With prices in the low hundreds of dollars, this is a brand that could make for an affordable Japanese alternative to the likes of Kurono.
Mirco, based in Tokyo, is another company in the microbrand tradition, but with a significant increase in price compared to the likes of Kuoe (above). Using base movements from Seiko and Miota, the brand has a bold and retro-sporty character that harkens back to the 1970s – without repeating a specific model yet. A young brand, Mirco only has two collections so far, the Type 02 Chronograph and the Type 03 Dive Watch (the Type 01 doesn’t count).
It’s not the only brand bringing back the now-retro-futuristic designs of digital watches from the 1970s, but it may be one of the most fully dedicated to it. As its name suggests, it is all about retro-futuristic watches that have LED and roller displays. The best part? With quartz movements, they cost less than $200 — and they’re just the kind of souvenir you want to bring back from a trip to Japan.
Like Hajime Asoka but less famous, Naoya Hida is a cutting-edge independent watchmaker that produces highly handcrafted watches in very small batches. Small batches, about 10 watches per year. He comes from the watch industry having worked at Breguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and FP Journe. These are the types of watches that are stylistically conservative and very restrained, but on closer inspection are impressive. If you want one, you’ll have to reach out — and be prepared to spend more than $20,000.