Japan is ever a country of contradictions. On one hand, while it’s one of the most respected watchmaking nations alongside Switzerland and Germany, that status is largely due to just a trio of extremely prolific companies: Seiko, Citizen and Casio. And despite that status and a generally strong appreciation for watches, you don’t find quite the vibrant watchmaking scene of startups that you see in countries like France, Britain and the United States — but there are some lesser-known Japanese gems.
There are really just a few Japanese watch brands you need to know about, but they’re definitely worth understanding. They include those big companies as well as examples of up-and-coming independents, and together they exemplify the traits Japan is known for.
This is a country that’s famous for its craftsmanship, quality, sometimes quirky design, expensive tastes and fastidious attention to detail. This is why made-in-Japan products from jeans to sunglasses and many others are widely known around the world as some of the best in their respective fields. What qualities could be more suited to watchmaking? And you’ll indeed find these characteristics, to varying degrees, in products from Japanese watch brands.
Ranging from industrial-scale watchmaking powerhouses to the interesting indy brands that are 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 the most important in Japan. Though once known primarily for affordable, mass-produced watches, Seiko today enjoys international respect and renown. This is a massive company that through its range of brands and sub-brands competes in every style and price point found across the watch industry itself. It’s known to develop and produce 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, whereas sub-brands like Prospex, 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 might be.
Alongside Seiko, Citizen is Japan’s other big maker of traditional watches, but its structure and approach are quite different. Citizen owns Miyota, the maker of mechanical movements you’ll find powering affordable watches from a wide swath of third-party brands. Citizen-branded watches, however, largely focus on their battery-powered quartz with light-charging technology they call Eco-Drive. Under its umbrella is also the high-end Campanola brand and Promaster sub-brand. As a corporation, the Citizen also owns a range of brands not traditionally associated or considered Japanese, from Bulova to a number of Swiss watchmakers.
Casio is the third pillar of Japanese watchmaking, but it largely fills a different niche than the two above. Its full name is Casio Computer Co., Ltd., and that tells you right away it’s not in the business of traditional watches. Of course, Casio is best known for its digital watches. In addition to its affordable, analog or digital, Casio watches its most important sub-brand is the famously tough G-Shock, but you’ll also find watches branded as Edifice, Oceanus, Baby-G and Pro-Trek. The company also makes calculators and musical instruments.
Because Orient is owned by one of the Seiko Group’s corporations, it’s sometimes misunderstood. While other brands in the group exist under the Seiko Watch Co., in corporate taxonomy, Orient is under Epson. Also unlike other Seiko watch brands, Orient was acquired rather than created by Seiko. It now shares technology and resources with its parent and sibling companies, but it has its own identity, history, production and even movements. It also has its own sub-brand: Orient Star, which offers a more premium product than the affordable beaters you’ll find branded simply as Orient.
Hajime Asaoka is one of Japan’s few independent high-end watchmakers, and Kurono is the international-facing sub-brand (noticing a trend among Japanese companies?) he created to offer more affordable watches to his fans. Kurono watches usually use sourced Miyota automatic movements and feature the finishing and Art-Deco that characterize Asaoka’s high-end pieces. The watches are typically produced in small batches which sell out quickly online.
Minase is a young brand that’s slowly building recognition outside of Japan. Beginning as Kyowa Co., it originally made tools and then machined watch parts for other brands. It finally moved into making full watches in 2005 and named the brand after its hometown. Minase produces many of its own parts, of course, and uses the same celebrated polishing technique that Grand Seiko made famous. With a couple collections, the Minase signature look is based on a complex case emphasizing views of three-dimensional dials. With prices ranging from a couple to a few thousand dollars, the brand uses sourced automatic movements from ETA which it decorates in-house.
Now here’s a brand that looks more like the microbrands we’re used to seeing in other countries. Kuoe (the e is silent) 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 sourced Japanese automatic movements and emphasizes local pride. With prices in the low hundreds of dollars, this is a brand that might make for an affordable Japanese alternative to the likes of Kurono.
Based in Tokyo, Mirco is another company in the microbrand tradition but a significant step up in price compared to the likes of Kuoe (above). Using sourced movements from Seiko and Miyota, the brand has a bold and retro-sporty character that seems to draw on the 1970s — and yet without replicating a particular model. A young brand, Mirco so far only has two collections with the Type 02 chronograph and the Type 03 dive watch (Type 01 is unaccounted for).
This isn’t the only brand bringing back the now-retro-futuristic designs of digital watches from the 1970s, but it might be one of the only ones that’s totally dedicated to it. As its name implies, it’s all about retro-futuristic watches that feature LED and roller displays. The best part? With quartz movements, they’re pretty affordably priced at mostly under or around $200 — and they’re just the kind of souvenir you’d want to come back with from a trip to Japan.
Like Hajime Asaoka but less well-known, Naoya Hida is a high-end independent watchmaker producing highly handcrafted watches in very small batches. Small batches, as in about 10 watches per year. He comes from the watch industry having worked at Breguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and F.P. Journe. These are the types of watches that are stylistically conservative and extremely restrained but meant to impress when examined closely. If you want one, you’ll have to reach out — and be prepared to spend upward of $20,000.