While the global watch industry crumbled in the ’70s and ’80s, a single country flourished.
This time period is coloquially known as the Quartz Crisis, and that country was Japan. In this page, we review the events that led Japan to become one of the biggest watch industry players today.
Moreover, we discuss the top modern Japanese watch companies. Unsurprisingly, many of these played a part in the worst era the horology industry has encountered.
The following links will allow you to jump to a specific section. Otherwise, continue scrolling for the full read:
Best Japanese Watches
- Seiko Watches – Japan’s Watch Authority
- Grand Seiko – Master of the Spring Drive Watch
- Citizen Watches – Owner of Miyota Movement Manufacture
The Japanese watch brands we highlight here extend across the entire price spectrum.
Indeed, it’s reasonable to (incorrectly) assume a watch manufacturer from Japan only produces cheap quartz pieces. Lesser known is the fact that Japan’s technological advancements through history were what led it to triump when others suffered.
This determination for improvement remains today. Given this, one of the brands included here has been able to implement the latest technology to create truly high-end and luxurious watches. Keep reading below to find out who it is.
See Bespoke Unit’s Watch Reviews
History Of Japanese Watchmaking
While traditional clocks were introduced in Japan as early as the 16th century, it would take centuries for the Gregorian calendar to become the official method of recording time.
When this finally occurred in the late 1800s, the West was centuries ahead in clockmaking technology. Nevertheless, the first pocket watch factory was established and by 1910, Japan was producing millions of timepieces a year.
Unlike with American watchmaking where industrialization took over, the Japanese stuck to a handcrafted approach. Subsequently, while they still enjoyed success, they would not become a manufacturing leader until much later.
When WWII came to an end, much of the watchmaking machinery had been destroyed or repurposed. Regardless, the Japanese government remained determined – their goal was to become the “Swiss watchmakers of the East”.
The Korean War, coupled with the import of advanced machinery from Switzerland, gave the Japanese industry a thread to follow. Subsequently, the Institute for the Development of Horological Production Technology was established, hoping to push Japanese quality closer to Swiss standards.
As the quality and precision increased, so did a preference for domestic over imported timekeepers. Various marketing campaigns, including sports timing systems at the 1984 Tokyo Olympics, garnered further acclaim for Japanese horology.
1967 saw the introduction of the first quartz watch prototypes. Ironically, these were not too popular or efficient, given their short battery life.
Yet the technology would improve, and by 1973, the first digital watch would be commercialized globally. The entire industry would be flipped upside down.
The Quartz Crisis
By the end of the 1970s, Japan’s horological technology and manufacturing methods had advanced significantly. So much so, in fact, that total production in 1979 exceeded 100 million watches.
On the other hand, Switzerland had been slow to adapt. Mechanical timepieces commanded a premium price and were less accurate, making quartz a product that essentially sold itself.
As they say, the rest is history. Watch brands all around the globe were affected. Most perished; a select few managed to pull through.
Meanwhile, Japan’s industry thrived. Movement-producing powerhouses became even more established. This advantage continues until today, with Japan producing hundreds of millions of watches exported to all countries around the world.
Next, we discuss what makes Seiko watches so widely beloved. Alternatively, you can jump straight to our list of the best Japanese watch brands.
What Makes Seiko Watches So Popular?
It’d be easy to argue that there are brands more well-known than Seiko, such as Rolex or Omega. Yet, if one were to spend any amount of time browsing online watch communities, it would be glaringly obvious that there is something different about Seiko owners.
It seems like every day, a new thread is created involving a Seiko model. Someone posts a review of their newly-acquired Seiko Presage. Another reaches out to the community asking for advice on an SKX.
Whatever the topic, original or duplicated, thousands of eyes will flock and enthusiastic conversation is sure to ensue. Do we dare try to explain exactly what makes this such an participatory community? No.
But we can guess.
Seiko Watch Prices
The price point at which most Seiko watches retail makes them incredibly accessible. Additionally, Seiko offers models over a wide range of prices. This makes it easy to acquire your first, and gradually work your way up the price ladder.
Furthermore, those in the market for a Seiko are not necessarily pursuing flash. They’re usually after reliability and simple functionality, which brings us to the next point…
Seiko Quality Standards
Their quality. Those entering the Seiko family at either end of the price range share this one thing, if nothing else. In other words, they are confident of the product’s quality.
A Seiko watch will rarely let you down. Most models possess extreme durability, including the dressier options. Of course, durability speaks to the internal as well as the external. Speaking of the external…
There may literally be enough Seiko watches out there for every person on the planet. Actually, we’d venture to say that there is a Seiko watch out there to the liking of every person on the planet.
The variety in dials, case sizes, case metal, bands, movements and more is absolutely unmatched. With unlimited possibilities, and with the advent of online shopping to give you access to a watch on the other side of the world, it’s easier than ever for your ideal watch to make it’s way to your wrist.
Finally, it starts to make sense. Watches become objects that evoke emotions within us. And when you’re able to find the right one for you, you want to tell everyone about it. Not such a mystery now, is it?
Best Japanese Watches
1. Seiko Watches
Seiko was founded in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori in Tokyo, though initially the business centered around clocks. 11 years later, Hattori purchased an empty factory, named it Seikosha, and began making his own clocks.
An entrepreneur and innovator, Hattori would also create the first Japanese wristwatch in 1913. Though the brand was not yet an industry leader, this event would set the tone and expectation to be followed for decades to come.
By the same token came Seiko’s first self-winding watch, and soon after their first Grand Seiko luxury mechanical timepiece.
Most notorious was the introduction of the Seiko Quartz Astron in 1969. Albeit unknown at the time, a true revolution had begun.
Watch brands were falling left and right, yet Seiko thrived. 1975 brought the first multi-function digital watch. 1982, the first TV watch. Both by Seiko, of course.
You probably get the idea by now. Seiko’s list of “firsts” is potentially endless, especially considering that they continue to push the boundaries even today.
As of 2017, the high-end watch vertical Grand Seiko has now become independent from Seiko. Which brings us to the next brand on our list…
2. Grand Seiko
Given Seiko’s perception as an affordable timepiece manufacturer, the move to split makes sense. Additionally, it allows Grand Seiko to be respected in its own right.
In 1960, Seiko set out to make the best mechanical watch at the hands of their expert watchmakers. Their creation, the Grand Seiko, boasted chronometer specs and shock-resistant technology. It would be the beginning of the Japanese brand’s first luxury line.
Since that beginning, the Grand Seiko platform was used to push tirelessly towards the “ideal” watch. Four years later, an upgraded model with date complication would come to light.
Not to be appeased, the Grand Seiko team continued. Domestic watchmakers no longer proved a skilled enough adversary, so they looked outwards – towards Switzerland. While met with failure in earlier competitions, a Grand Seiko timepiece would be crowned the best mechanical watch in a Geneva observatory competition in 1968.
Undeniably, this great victory proved a satisfactory fruit of intense labor. Nonetheless, complacency was not a choice. 20 years of invention later, and Grand Seiko released their first quartz watch, the 95GS.
In the early 2000s, Grand Seiko would delve into the world of GMT watches. Their first example, the 9S56, was particularly attractive. Some would say it resembles a Rolex Explorer II 16570, while still possessing the Grand Seiko flair.
Recently, Grand Seiko has made it a mission to push their Spring Drive movements to the limit. Most impressively, their 2016 Spring Drive release boasted an 8 day power reserve, along with a platinum case.
Only time will tell where Grand Seiko’s insatiable hunger for progress will take them.
In the modern day, Citizen forms part of a large industry conglomerate controlling many brands (Citizen Group).
Yet the Japanese watch company Citizen had humble beginnings. Started in Tokyo in 1918, the fledgling brand saw quick success as war brought high demand for their products.
Though the growth was slow until the second half of the century, Citizen would learn to exploit partnerships with international brands. Expressly, they’d provide movements and even watches for them to white label.
This strategy proved successful, particularly with Bulova, and allowed the company to continue investing in R&D. When the Quartz Crisis arrived, Citizen was ready with various battery-powered watches, allowing them to succeed.
Citizen Eco-Drive Watches
Soon after introducing their first quartz timepiece in 1975, Citizen would release the Eco-Drive. The world’s first analog light-powered watch, the Eco-Drive has been a hit since inception.
Over the past 40 years, the eco-drive technology has been improved, expanded for further complications, and implemented into all styles of watches. Indeed one of their best selling concepts, it makes for an extremely convenient watch. Additionally, the Eco-Drive line is objectively accessible, for watch fans or functional wearers alike.
Final Thoughts & More Watch Reads
Although they may not possess the extensive heritage of other watchmaking countries, Japan has earned its spot at the top of the watch world today. And while not many “high horology” pieces originate in the country yet, this trend is clearly growing and showing serious promise.
While our list is certainly not all inclusive, we aimed to highlight the Japanese watch brands that make the biggest waves in the industry today. Are there any favorites of yours we may have missed? Let us know below in the comments!
Also, feel free to check out our related watch content:
- Seiko Brand Complete History by Bespoke Unit
- Grand Seiko GMT On The Wrist Review by Paul Anthony
- German Watch Brands Guide
- YouTube Watch Videos & Reviews
"The Japanese brands included in this guide are top-notch. They also do an outstanding job demonstrating that the best watches don't have to be Swiss."Rating: 5.0★★★★★