The Big Three Japanese watchmakers cast a horological shadow as imposing as Mt. Fuji itself. Like many things “Made in Japan,” watches from industry giants Seiko, Casio, and Citizen are now enjoying greater prestige and international enthusiasm than ever. But where is the more personal and entrepreneurial take on Japanese watchmaking? It turns out there are a handful of notable brands and talented individuals quietly making some interesting watches with the country’s famously fastidious and sometimes quirky touch. These few brands represent diversity in Japan’s watchmaking — and they’re ones you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Kurono and Hajime Asaoka
Hajime Asaoka’s approach is reminiscent of the high-end independent Swiss watchmakers that many feel represent the best of the industry. He’s said to take on “every part of the watchmaking process himself” and gained international attention with his tourbillon watches. These are as expensive as their Swiss counterparts, but to serve a relatively more budget-conscious audience, he has created a separate brand.
Kurono might look like a Japanese surname, but it’s actually the transliteration back from Japanese of the transliteration of the more familiar word chrono. Confused? Welcome to Japan. Incorporating design DNA from Asaoka’s high-end watches, Kurono produces relatively affordable watches in series — as opposed to the one-off bespoke Hajime Asaoka-branded pieces costing $40,000 and more. Past Kurono series have been limited to 50 examples per variant and housed the Miyota 90S5 automatic movement (made by Citizen), with prices of roughly $1,700.
Minase’s model is a little different than of most startups. We’re not talking about something like a microbrand founded by a passionate enthusiast, using parts sourced from assorted suppliers. Nor are Minase’s watches one-off pieces by an independent watchmaker. Minase began as a company making step drills and later expanded into making watch parts like cases for third parties. The company decided to start making mechanical watches of its own in 2005, taking the name of its home town located in northern Japan.
With complicated cases, zaratsu polishing, and premium materials like sapphire crystal, Minase is making a luxury-priced product and doing much of their own production in-house. While past models have used sourced automatic movements such as the ever-popular Swiss ETA 2824, the brand claims to have developed its own movement as well. Priced starting in the low thousands of dollars, Minase has a boutique feel and occupies an otherwise wide-open space between small startups and the major Japanese juggernauts.
Aiming for the demographic that follows high-end independent watchmaking, industry veteran Naoya Hida released his first watch in 2019, the NH Type 1B. The brand is described as a collaboration between the watchmaker and a Japanese company specializing in precision machinery able to produce everything from cases to dials to hands. Components are individually finished by hand by skilled craftsmen: the indices are hand-etched and filled with lacquer; the hands are hand-polished and heat-blued; etc.
The brand’s first watch has a vintage-inspired style, is moderately sized at 37mm and just 9.8mm thick and is made of 904L steel — a type of stainless steel that’s harder than the more typical 316L variety and is famously used by Rolex. Its hand-wound movement is provided by high-end Swiss movement maker Vaucher. At the current USD equivalent of around $17,600, the brand’s target audience is limited — much like the production of these high-end watches. (For a similar approach, also see the independent watchmaking duo Kikuchi Nakagawa.)