Watchmaking in Japan

What about Japanese independents?


February 2018

What about Japanese independents?

The independent Japanese watchmaker Hajime Asaoka has produced a grand total of... 19 watches! They are the result of meticulous craftsmanship, performed with great patience, combined with several years dedicated solely to research and development. Read also on Minase, Suzuki Kango, Tasaki, Knot, Wired and Tokyoflash.


uropa Star met him at his Tokyo workshop, far removed from standardised Japanese factories: rather a motley collection of 1960s-80s objects, not unlike Vianney Halter’s cluttered workshop.

Hajime Asaoka
Hajime Asaoka

An old Apple computer, retro-futuristic chairs, a Michelin man, psychedelic paintings, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, a Sony cassette recorder, the “best in the world”... Asaoka has even had the honour of appearing in a manga with the excellent Hirota Masayuki in Chronos Japan magazine.

However, in order to pursue his adventure, this industrial designer faces an even more complicated challenge than his Swiss alter egos. Because unlike in the Swiss valleys, there are very few independent sub-contractors in Japan, those who “feed” the creative work of craftsmen, allowing them to bring their ideas into fruition. The country has never known the Swiss system of établissage or division of labour.

So components somehow have to be obtained. “I salvage Unitas movements to use their components, such as the balance spring,” explains Asaoka. “And it’s a subcontractor from the automotive industry who supplies my cases... but I have to finish them myself, of course.” The craftsman, who has good relationships with both Philippe Dufour and Antoine Preziuso (whose work is particularly valued in Japan), is a member of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, along with his fellow countryman Masahiro Kikuno.

Hajime Asaoka “Tsunami” watch
Hajime Asaoka “Tsunami” watch

Asaoka has designed three main models: a simple “Tsunami” watch priced at 25,000 dollars, a “Project T” tourbillon watch at 80,000 dollars and, most interestingly, a chronograph at 120,000 dollars, created from scratch. Each model takes half a year to construct. The watches have a “sensible” diameter of 38 mm, like the creations of Philippe Dufour.

“My philosophy is inspired by ‘shogi’, the Japanese chess game,” says Asaoka. “Chess players place their pawns in the most unexpected positions in order to surprise and defeat their opponents. In my work, I try to think outside the box in order to optimise the composition of the watches, as though I were playing a game of chess with my clients. George Daniels has also been a great source of inspiration for me. I have my heart set on optimising every component of a mechanical watch.”

The watchmaker crafts all the movement components in his watches himself, with the exception of the mainspring and the balance spring. “I have no samples to show and a two-year waiting list. I can’t even treat myself to one of my own watches!” His clients are not only Japanese, but also European and American. His current maximum capacity is five watches per year. “But we’re currently increasing production. We want to double it, to 10 watches a year! In order to do this, we’re in the process of acquiring new machines and hiring staff, whereas there are currently four of us. We’re growing... in any case we couldn’t really get any smaller!”

Minase: from subcontracting to the finished product

What about Japanese independents?

Minase is the name of a village in the snowy region of Akita in northern Japan. It is also that of a subcontractor which since 1960 has specialised in the production of drills and cases and employs around 70 people.

In 2005 the company decided to launch its own watches. These have met with critical success in Japan, with an annual production of approximately 400 pieces sold at 40 retail outlets. It’s now time to conquer the international markets! “Minase has a strong reputation for the quality of its finishings and the polishing technique known as ‘Sallaz’, which gives cases a mirror effect that nobody is producing in Switzerland any more,” notes sales and marketing manager Sven Erik Henriksen.

Subcontracting still represents 80% of Minase’s activities. “As far as watches are concerned, the mid-range offer is positioned at between 2,500 and 5,000 Swiss francs. The idea is now to present the brand in Switzerland, Europe and the Middle East. The challenge is that the brand is still unknown outside of Japan and the watch market it is targeting is already saturated! But it is really a high quality product, the very best craftsmanship: a piece of Japan worn on the wrist!”

What about Japanese independents?

Suzuki Kango has created a clock that “writes” the time. This project is called “kakitokei”, which means “writing clock” in Japanese, but it is commonly known as the Plock. The name is a combination of “plot” and “clock” already hinting at how the time of day is displayed. The whimsical creation is the work of the extremely talented Suzuki Kango of the Tohoku University of Art and Design. The Plock was made to fulfil his senior thesis. The contraption is part time keeper, part writing device. Each minute, the wooden mechanism kicks into motion, engaging with the writing arms that then write the time on a magnetic board. The Plock is a massive accomplishment by the 22-year-old student, who does not have immediate plans to commercialise his creation.

What about Japanese independents?

Tasaki is a Japanese jeweller that also produces exceptional mechanical pieces. And it was Hajime Asaoka himself who created the delicate Odessa Tourbillon model.

Knot is a brand that seems to be achieving remarkable success in Japan. As the founders explain, the Knot project began with redefining the watch manufacturing industry in Japan, which had shifted to overseas production, to return to factories in Japan, where outstanding technicians and materials gather. “We are involved in all aspects, from the designing and planning to delivery of parts, assembly, and sales. Because we do not use intermediaries, even if we use high quality materials with high costs, we can provide watches from around 10,000 yen. For example, the glass we use is durable sapphire glass, which is not easily damaged and is also used for luxury Swiss watches.” The brand offers custom orders selected from over 8,000 types (straps, materials, colours,…). Eventually, Knot aims to reduce prices by a third with a new way of distribution.

Wired is highly valued by young Japanese people. It is one of numerous brands overseen by the giant Seiko, distributed in Japan and Taiwan only.

What about Japanese independents?

Tokyoflash has designed a unique collection of futuristic watches with integrated technology that make art out of telling time. As the brand’s name suggests, flash is the name of the game. In this case, it’s telling the time using LED lights. One model is the Kisai Blade Wood, which has two different ways to display the time.

The watch truly comes to life through its animations. When turned on, the vivid LED blades rotate rapidly once every 15 minutes, between 6 and 12 o’clock. You will be able to enjoy the flash of this watch for up to one month at a time, which is its battery life after only a 3.5 hour charge (via USB). Unfortunately the Kisai Link does not have the same endurance. It takes 1.5 hours to charge and will last up to 5 days.

The watches bring flash and functionality at a surprisingly low cost of around 150 USD. While the watches might not be for everyone, their price point certainly is..