After more than two centuries of seclusion, Japan opened its borders and conducted international trade in 1853, becoming a brand new market that foreigners vie for. In 1860, the Union of Horlogère, a group of about 50 watchmakers from Neuchâtel, opened a store in Yokohama, and the history of Japanese watchmaking began.
Silk painting ‘Beauty and Bell’ by Nishikawa Yushin (1671-1750), first half of the 18th century
At this time, Japan was transitioning from the feudal Edo era to the modern Meiji era, but this change did not reduce the challenge of Swiss watch exports by a few points. Different from the ‘timed method’, which uses 24 hours to divide the day and night in Western countries, and each hour is measured by one hour, Japan uses the ‘unscheduled method’ (depending on the sunrise and sunset to determine the time, the day and night are divided by six). It is for this reason that although the Japanese also respect the mechanical genius of Swiss watches, they tend to regard them as ‘strange tricks’ rather than an effective tool to indicate time. Local demand for watches and clocks was extremely low, and the shops were struggling. Eventually, it closed in July 1863.
Aimé Humbert (1819-1900) portrait
However, the initial failure did not stop Aimé Humbert, chairman of the Watch Union. In 1864, appointed by the Swiss Federal Council, Aimé Humbert led a diplomatic delegation to Japan and concluded a friendly trade treaty with the Edo government. Therefore, 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Japan.
Japan Mitsousi Silk Trade Store
Until 1873, Japan (three centuries later than France) adopted the Gregorian calendar year and the 24-hour timekeeping system. It seemed that all of a sudden, a practical tool such as a clock was exulting, and Japan’s fast-growing railway system also demanded time measurement. At the end of the 19th century, Japan’s economic growth helped import Swiss watches. However, at that time, only a few traders had a trading house in Japan, and the watch trade accounted for only a small part of it. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was common to bring a watch with you, and the market demand increased, prompting more traders to open trading houses in Japan, and local merchants began to import watches directly from Switzerland.
Girard Perregaux pocket watch brought to Japan by François Perregaux, circa 1875
The birth of an industry
Imported Swiss watches dominate the local market, and at the same time, Japan is also establishing and developing its own watchmaking industry. A branch of the Japan-California joint venture Otay Watch, Osaka Watch Manufacturing Co., established in 1889, became the first company to launch a series of pocket watch products. In 1877, the watchmaker and the jewellery service department Kintaro opened a timepiece repair shop in Kyohashi-channmachi. Then, in 1881, a timepiece shop was opened in Ginza, and finally Seikosha Clock Factory was established in 1892. This is Seiko Corporation. Predecessor. Initially, Seikosha specialized in wall clocks. By 1895, the company’s business had expanded to pocket watches.
Japanese ancient Wadokei and timepiece
Over the next decade, Japanese watchmakers sprung up, including Aichi Watches & Electronic Instrument Manufacturers, Meiji Watches, Owari Precision Watch Manufacturers and Pocket Watch Manufacturers. In 1899, Japan introduced a protectionist policy. Domestic watches benefited from it and quickly replaced the status of imported watches. In 1913, Seiko launched Laurel, Japan’s first domestic watch. Five years later, the Citizen Watch Company was established. As a result, the Japanese watch industry expanded rapidly and became prosperous, until production was paralyzed by World War II.
Seiko Laurel’s first domestic watch in Japan
Japan was rebuilt after the war, and so was the watchmaking industry. In 1947, the Japan Watch Association was established, and clocks produced in Japan began to be sold worldwide. The following year, the Economic Stabilization Board of Japan formulated a five-year plan to reinvigorate the watchmaking industry. However, through three-year mechanical automation to increase output, the five-year plan was finally completed ahead of schedule. On the eve of the Korean War (1950-1953), Japan’s watch production was already comparable to the global market demand. The Korean War and the Vietnam War (1964-1975) made Japan the leading watch exporter of that period.
Bêta 21 quartz watch, 1970
From quartz to machinery
In the 1980s, the development of mechanical timing seemed to have come to an end. The advent of electronic, quartz, and atomic time measurements eventually led to a change in the definition of ‘seconds’ in 1967. Based on the revolutionary changes measured at this time, on Christmas 1969, Seiko launched the world’s first Astron quartz watch. The following year, the Swiss Bêta 21 finished quartz watch appeared at Basel. Since then, the watchmaking industry has abandoned mechanical traditions and turned to electronic quartz. This trend pushed Swiss mechanical watchmaking out of the altar, and Japan became a global leader in electronic watches.
Grand Seiko watch, 1960
The next story is well known. Coming to the late 1980s and early 1990s, mechanical watch enthusiasts and collectors called for the return of traditional watchmaking. Japan seized this opportunity and incorporated technology under its control. The Seiko Kinetic watch released in 1988 is the result of a fusion of electrical and mechanical. Its working principle is derived from the traditional automatic winding system, which generates and stores electrical energy through the swing of the wearer’s arm. The Japanese watchmaking industry and the European watchmaking industry witnessed the revival of mechanical watchmaking at the end of the 20th century. Grand Seiko was launched in 1960, is the brand’s star series, and has entered the European market in 2007. As ever, the Japanese watch industry is ready to meet the challenge and compete with Swiss mechanical watchmaking.