My Dinner With Ibe: Talking To The Legendary G-Shock Founder About The Changing Face Of Japanese Watchmaking
Kikuo Ibe is an anomaly in the Japanese watch industry. In a corporate culture that treasures teamwork, Ibe is a standout rock star. In early June, he was literally on a North American Tour (and we have the T-Shirt to prove it!).
At the age of 65, Ibe finds himself riding a wave of socio-economic disruption in Japan. An aging population is resulting in a shrinking workforce. In fact, the Japanese government is discussing raising the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 68 (senior executives may stay on until 70).
It may not seem like a big deal, but these changing demographics are having a big impact on the Japanese watch industry. At a dinner in Toronto, we sat down with Ibe to talk about what this means for him (he has no plans to retire) and his industry (change, while challenging, is good for business).
Honoring ancient crafts is a big part of Japanese watchmaking. For example, the G-Shock MR-G collection features finishing techniques such as the Arashi Tsuchime hammering technique — a skill mastered by families of craftspeople over generations.
Looking at the competition, every Grand Seiko is assembled and adjusted by hand by highly skilled craftsmen and women in two dedicated studios in Japan. The dials of the new Grand Elegance line are brushed with Urushi lacquer is extracted from trees around the town of Joboji located near Mount Iwate — which the skilled watchmakers at Seiko’s Shizukuishi Watch Studio can view during work hours.
It only makes sense that experience would also be venerated. Though the idea of the collective is generally the norm in Japan, Casio has pivoted and put Ibe and his story about the development of the G-Shock at the front and center of its marketing plans.
Seiko is more reluctant to throw a spotlight on individual efforts, but ever since Grand Seiko became an autonomous brand in 2017, names like Yoshikazu Akahane, the inventor of the Spring Drive in 1978, or Kenji Shiohara, who founded the Micro Artist Studio in 2000, have become part of the brand’s storytelling.
The culture has certainly changed in North America and Europe as well. And storytelling is particularly important when marketing a brand outside of Japan.
Reaching a global market is especially crucial given Japan’s population decline. In early June, the government revealed that the nation’s population has been constantly decreasing since 2007. These trends affect not only the workforce but the market as well. A shrinking population means fewer people buying watches.
For G-Shock, that means that the brand has had to grow up with its audience. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have a youthful appeal (collaborations with brands like A Bathing Ape and bands like Gorillaz have proven popular), but luxury offerings like the $70,000 solid 18k gold G-D5000-9 are not just for kids, either.
“This was a dream project,” says Ibe of finding a way to use a traditionally soft material to make a tough watch and translating gold into complex shapes. But it was also fun for Ibe’s team to work in that world of exclusivity. “From $30 to $70,000, we have a watch at every price point.” jokes Ibe.
While Grand Seiko’s switch to being a standalone brand has also given it extra legitimacy in haute horology, other Japanese manufactures are becoming less insular and expanding their global reach by buying up mid-range, international watchmakers. The venerable Citizen Watch Co., which turned 100 in 2018, has a portfolio that includes Bulova, Frederique Constant, Alpina, and Arnold & Son.
It must also be noted that companies like Casio, Seiko, and Citizen also manufacture everything from synthesizers to printers to calculators. And sometimes the technology transfers over from other sectors, as in the case of the Spring Drive. Still, timepieces could easily be ignored in favor of other products. These recent moves emphasize a commitment to watchmaking.
Japan is not the only country that’s facing a shifting socio-economic reality. But it seems to be taking on the disruption with a degree of glee. At least in Ibe’s case.
As for his future, Ibe doesn’t see retiring any time soon. His motto is “Never give up.” His role with G-Shock is also evolving. “I am but one person on the team,” he says, adding that while he sees himself becoming more of an advisor than a leader, he still has one more project that he would like to realize.
So far, G-Shock has created timepieces built to withstand the pressures of earth, sea, and sky. Which leaves one more frontier. “We may well travel into space,” says Ibe. “We haven’t started yet, but we may develop a G-Shock for walks in space.”
“Or for aliens,” he laughs.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)