Europe has long been considered the ancestral home of watchmaking, with a Swiss heart beating at the centre of it. However, just because Europeans have been doing it for the longest, doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who do it well. There’s a rising tide of seriously cool Japanese watch brands ready to take over in a sweeping tsunami.
From independent brands practicing traditional crafts to high-tech watchmakers innovating at the bleeding edge of what’s possible, Japanese watchmaking is a diverse landscape. Fortunately, we’re here to guide you through it with a beginner’s guide to the best Japanese watch brands.
Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori was only 21 years old when he opened the K. Hattori watch and clock shop in Tokyo’s Kyobashi district and began building and repairing watches and clocks. He was only 31 when he partnered with an engineer named Tsuruhiko Yoshikawa to set up the Seikosha watch factory in 1892, forerunner of today’s Seiko.
After several years of producing high-quality wall clocks, Seikosha released its first pocketwatch, simply called the Timekeeper, in 1895. In 1969, Seiko beat Zenith, Breitling and Heuer to market with the world’s first automatic chronograph watch, the Seiko 5 Sports Speedtimer.
It was also behind Japan’s first serious divers’ watch, the much-loved 62MAS, a timepiece that precedes generations of classic, affordable Seiko dive watches like the iconic Seiko SKX007. In short – Seiko has gone onto to be a household Japanese watch brand and a juggernaut of the sub £3k category around the world with collections such as the Prospex (which recently saw the release of the Save the Ocean Special Editions), Astron, Presage and 5 Sports.
More details at Seiko.
Grand Seiko is a top tier brand of its own. Operating in the plus £5k category – and very much a different breed of finish to Seiko. It was created in 1960 by Daini Seikosha and Suwa Seikosha, which were two subsidiaries of the Seiko corporation. They wanted to create a line of watches that could compete with the Swiss watchmakers.
The first watch that Seiko created to be “the best in the world” in terms of accuracy and precision. The watch had a gold-filled case, 34.9mm in diameter and 10mm thick. Each Grand Seiko watch was certified with an original standard of precision that Seiko established (and which, today, is stricter in its criteria than even the Swiss agency COSC‘s standard). The watch, with its clean dial, long hands and applied indices, established the design codes that we know and love. Today, Grand Seiko is on the rise – with collectors going nuts for its dials inspired by nature and classic proportions.
More details at Grand Seiko.
Credor is a Japanese watch brand that keeps us up at night. Pure understated elegance with top level finishing, which some say is better than even Patek. The name Credor comes from the French ‘Créte d’Or’, meaning ‘the ultimate of the gold’ and it was founded in 1974.
Credor timepieces combine Seiko’s traditional craftsmanship with contemporary and high-end technology, leveraging more than 100 years of watchmaking know-how between the Seiko brands. The Credor name and ‘Golden Peak’ logo were eventually put on the dial instead of the Seiko logo mark beginning in 1980. The logo is meant to embody a mountain, which represents the peak or top of watchmaking. The three stars found at the top of the logo are representative of the three main tenets of Credor.
The first of those tenets is to create original designs that take advantage of Japanese sensitivity and aesthetic sense such as delicacy, precision and attention. Second there’s technology, through the realisation of precise manufacturing, which makes full use of cutting-edge and advanced design and manufacturing technologies. Lastly, handing down the pinnacle of artisanal craftsmanship and watchmaking skills cultivated in Seiko’s history of more than 130 years.
More details at Seiko.
Hajime Asaoka is arguably the leading name in independent Japanese watch brands. He is a product designer from Kanagawa, educated at the Tokyo University of the Arts, but not as a watchmaker. Learning from the George Daniels book and Youtube tutorials with machines bought from eBay, Asaoka’s story is rather impressive, even with the well-known Japanese self-discipline. It took him a mere four years to develop an in-house tourbillon. That bears repeating. Four years to develop an in-house tourbillon!
He works in his small workshop at his home in Tokyo, filled with European lathes and machines. He works slowly, meticulously, and with a pure focus on the end result. This has resulted in a small portfolio of references that span the skeletonized beauty of his chronograph to Art Deco chic. We love the non-conformity of his style language, with deep roots in the 1940s and 50s. His is a strong and indefinable Japanese dialect that simply underlines the allure of Japanese horology. However, the watches do tend to be a little pricey… which brings us to the next brand.
More details at Precision Watch Tokyo Co..
If you spend any time at all on social media – you will have no doubt seen watches from Kurono. Their coloured dials, elegant sizing and limited drops have sent the collector community into a frenzy of independent Japanese watchmaking love. But who are they? Well, essentially, Kurono is Hajime Asaoka’s attempt to bring his watchmaking to a much more accessible level.
Kurono combine masterfully timed releases (the watch is available to order for 10 minutes, and anyone who places an order in that window gets a watch) and more traditional limited edition releases, which involve a mad rush to order as fast as possible beginning at a global on-sale time. The latest is the Chronograph II White ‘Shiro’, but honestly there’s not a watch in the Kurono collection that’s not an absolute stunner. His work is beautiful and approachable – but good luck getting your hands on one, even if they are only £3,700 instead of £70,000.
More details at Kurono Tokyo.
Naoya Hida & Co.
Up next, and maybe our personal favourite Japanese watch brand, Naoya Hida & Co. The company was founded in 2018 by Mr Naoya Hida and has followed a strict principle; offer high-end watches in very limited numbers, with a consistent design. Mr Naoya Hida served as a representative for F.P. Journe and Ralph Lauren’s watches and jewellery, so he knows a thing or two about high-end watchmaking.
Later, in 2020, master watchmaker Mr Kosuke Fujita joined the company and is in charge of watch design and assembly. Mr Kusoke Fujita graduated from the Hiko-Mizuno Watchmaking School in Tokyo in 2002 and is WOSTEP-certified as a first-class watch repair technician. He has experience working at the Seiko Time Lab (former Seiko Service Centre) and F.P. Journe as well, before joining Naoya Hida & Co. The design language of the brand focuses on bringing back the elegant and refined watches from the 1930s and 1940s. There’s an undeniable Patek Phillipe Calatrava flair, with a similar style. In short – his work is simple – perfection. No screaming and shouting – just quiet class.
More details at Naoya Hida.
Producing fewer than 500 watches every year, Minase is a true boutique watchmaker. While the brand was founded in 2005, making it fairly young, they employ many traditional Japanese philosophies. At the forefront of their process is the concept of “monozukuri”, learning hand craft perfect items through repetition, a reference to their start in life as a machining workshop before transitioning those skills to watches. For this reason, they prefer to educate new watchmakers from the local region, rather than hiring experts from elsewhere. Simultaneously creating stunning watches and ensuring the future of Japanese watch brands.
As a testament to their success in this endeavour, Minase are one of the few brands, alongside Grand Seiko, to offer Zaratsu polishing on their watches. This style of finish is inspired by the qualities of mirrors and is typified by the metallic surface of the case looking black when held in the light at certain angles. Their ultra-precise approach to watchmaking enables them to engineer distinctive, multi-faceted cases with layered designs.
More details at Minase.
Aside from the wealth of independent watchmakers, Japan is also home to several watchmaking power houses that focus on value and accessibility. Citizen is perhaps at the top of that list, their name a reference to the belief that every citizen of the world deserves a high quality timepiece. Following in that philosophy, they were the first watchmaker to create quartz crystal watches. A technological advancement that simultaneously improved their collections’ accuracy, lifetime and accessibility.
That’s not the only major watchmaking claim that Citizen has under their belt. They also introduced titanium to the watchmaking scene and developed the first light-powered watches in the form of propriety Eco-Drive technology. Proof, if it were needed, that Japan shapes the global watch market just as much as Europe.
More details at Citizen.
Founded in 1946 Kashio Seisakujo was initially a fabrication business subcontracted to make pots, bicycle parts and more. It was only when a member of the Kashio brother invented, of all things, a ring that could hold your cigarette while you smoke it, that the business began to earn a reputation. Taking their broad fabrication knowledge they specialised in calculators, becoming the first brand to create a fully electronic calculator.
In 1974, following the advent of quartz watches in the 70s, Casio produced their first ever wristwatch, the Casiotron QW02. The company had already been developing new digital displays for their calculators, meaning they already had the technology on hand to produce digital watches. Plus, their deep understanding of complex numerical challenges led them to create the first digital calendar function for a watch that could account for the number of days in a month and leap years.
While Casio may have had a slow start in life, they became one of the most prolific producers of electronic goods in the world and their Japanese watches continue to be unrivalled in terms of raw utility and accessibility. An honourable mention has to go to the G-Shock line, created in the 80s, which made Casio a cool name in watchmaking.
More details at Casio.
Many Japanese crafts are localised in specific regions within Japan, for example Grand Seiko is heavily influenced by the Shinshu area. Knot Watches takes a different approach, rather than focussing on a single area, they make connections across the entire country through the Musubu Project. This enables them to produce watches and straps using a wide variety of specialist crafts and materials from multiple regions, embodying the whole of Japan in their designs.
Continuing that spirit of variety, Knot Watches operates with an element of customisation. Essentially, you can pick one of their 110 catalogued watch bodies and pair it with one of their 182 strap options, giving you over 20,000 possible combinations. Narrowing on the watches briefly, the options range from their flagship automatic chronograph to square case dress watches. All of them are incredibly accessible due to housing a variety of workhorse movements from Seiko and Miyota.
More details at Knot.
While Casio dominate Japan’s digital watch production, it’s Orient who have the distinction of producing the most mechanical watches per year in Japan. Similar to Seiko’s relationship with Grand Seiko, the Orient name can also be found on Orient Star watches. The term “orient” refers to countries in the far east and is often associated with connotations of luxury and treasure, the perfect name for a Japanese watch brand.
They offer a diverse range of styles and watches, with a particular focus on classic and vintage designs, such as the RA-AC0M01S. The RA-AC0M01S has a relatively small 38.5mm case in gold coloured stainless steel, giving it proportions and an appearance in line with a vintage timepiece. Inside is housed the Orient in-house F6724 automatic movement, which has a 40-hour power reserve and decorative finishing. However, alongside classic designs they’re also adept at more adventurous timepieces including dive watches and tactical pilot’s watches.
More details at Orient.
The small, independent manufacture Kikuchi Nakagawa is the joint vision of Yusuke Kikuchi and Tomonari Nakagawa, both men who trained in other disciplines before finding a shared love in watchmaking. Kikuchi studied architecture and software while Nakagawa is a trained swordsmith, meaning together they have all the skills to design and fabricate watches, for which they underwent further training in France.
Now, they aim to create the so-called “imaginary watch”, a timepiece that can’t possibly exist because of its contrasting elements. Namely, to push the physical qualities of the watch beyond practicality while also being entirely practical. In reality that translates to classic designs inspired by the 50s in vintage proportion cases housing movements from Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier, one of the premier Swiss movement manufactures.
More details at Kikuchi Nakagawa.