Four Hundred Years After

Part I

Japan and the Horological Tradition

To present-day mechanical watch collectors and enthusiasts the world of watchmaking is centered upon Switzerland, with Germany at the periphery. But the present golden age revival follows a mechanical timekeeping heritage over 700 years old, with spring-driven clocks and watches forming a slightly shorter lineage of about 600 years. The Swiss industry is one of the youngest, beginning a bit over 400 years ago — an industry originally built upon the efficiencies of outsourcing and low labour costs.

The long history of the defunct English, French, and American watchmaking industries is largely forgotten, or glossed over by Swiss marketing. All that remains of those grand watchmaking traditions are local cases wrapped in Swiss movements, or
“Swiss made” watches with English, French, or American name brands. While most Japanese brands stand apart from this sad farce, no one ever speaks of a history or a tradition of Japanese watchmaking — and that was why I finally went in search of it. What follows is what I was able to discover of Japan’s place in horology, both in the context of worldwide horological development and within its own tumultuous history.

Note: While there is an official book on Seiko’s history, it is only available in Japan and in the Japanese language. What follows is what I was able to reconstruct from available sources. Any errors are my own.

The first steps towards “mechanical” timekeeping in east Asia begins not with imported European technology as one would expect, but with the water clocks that were indigenous to China. Precise dates are difficult to come by, but the early centuries of the first millennium (C.E.) show the signs of the necessary hydraulic technology. The transfer of this technology to Japan was
preceded and only made possible by a number of events, including the decline of the Yamato court and the importation of Buddhism (in the mid 500s).

The Buddhist Prince Shotoku was the first to open direct relations with China, whereas all previous contact had been through the intermediation of Korea. In time the Japanese government would even remodel itself upon the Confucian principles of the T’ang Dynasty. By the year 671, Emperor Tenchi had created the first water clock in Japan. Shortly thereafter in China, the Buddhist monk I-Hsing produced a water-powered astronomical clock.

The first century of the second millennium brought two innovations to far east Asia: In Japan, Lady Murasaki of the Heian court wrote The Tale of Genji, generally acknowledged as the first novel ever; and in China the scholar Su Sung made an important breakthrough in the art and science of timekeeping when he completed the “Cosmic Engine” — possibly the first clock in recorded history to be regulated by an escapement. Unfortunately it was repeatedly damaged, then destroyed in a series of wars and invasions. Highly complex mechanical
clock making was then largely forgotten in east Asia until it was imported from Europe.

About a century after a small fortified compound was established next to a fishing village by the Edo family of the Taira clan (in the late 1100s), England saw the beginnings of a new age of horological technology with the invention of the weight-driven mechanical clock. The invention of the spring in the early 1400s in Nuremburg led to spring powered table clocks, which in turn led to the creation of watches. Pocket watches became fashionable — if not very useful — from about 1500 on. Germany and England were the centers of horological craft, and France soon developed a watchmaking industry of its own (by the early to mid 1500s). It should be recalled that clocks and watches were not a product for the common man, but solely the province of cities (with tower clocks),
aristocrats, and wealthy merchants.

This time of evolution in the horological sciences also saw the ascension of samurai-ruled feudalism in Japan (1100s to 1300s), followed by incessant warfare beginning in the 1400s as samurai lords (daiymo) vied with each other for power, and in 1457 a new fortress replaced the old Edo fortified compound. It was this time of tumult that saw the adoption and development of many of those things which we think of as being classically Japanese: Zen, the tea ceremony, sumi-e painting, new forms of poetry, &c. The dominance of the bushi and their culture had been established for centuries when Europeans brought a new wave of technology to the archipelago in 1543, the year of first contact with the Portuguese. At this time Japan was one of the largest civilizations in the world with a populace of 10 million people.

In 1549 Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, first arrived in the newly discovered “Japans.” It was he who in 1551 gave the first mechanical clock in Japan to a daiymo, and it was the
missionaries who followed him that first set up a school in Nagasaki in 1600 to teach clockmaking in Japan. For perspective, this was a mere 60 or so years after the resettlement of Calvinist refugees who would found the Genevan watch industry; one year before the the creation of Geneva’s Watchmaking Guild in 1601; and over 90 years before Daniel Jean Richard established watchmaking in Le Locle in 1691.

The unification of the warring states that was begun Oda Nobunaga, continued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu led to the supreme dominion of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, and from Hideyoshi’s crackdown on missionaries to the shogunate’s complete prohibition and persecution of Christianity by 1617, the forbidding of overseas travel for
Japanese natives by 1635 (on pain of death), and ultimately the prohibition of most foreign trade by 1639.

Only a single port at the island of Dejima off of Nagasaki was open to limited Chinese, Korean, and Dutch trade. Throughout the archipelago all traces of “barbarian” culture was expunged. Firearms were outlawed. Clocks and
clock making, which had taken on a uniquely Japanese form and function, like the cultural arts would flourish under the direct sponsorship of the otherwise rigid Neo-Confucian order and censorship of the Tokugawa military dictatorship — which would last for nearly three hundred years.

As this “Edo Era,” which began in 1603, saw the new castle built at Edo become the seat of the shogunate, it also saw the castle town of Edo become the center of
Japanese horological manufacture. Clockmaking continued at Nagasaki and Sakai but to a lesser degree than in Edo. In the direct employ of the shogunate, master clockmakers like Sukaezemon Tsuda placed their efforts into producing

The simplest of these clocks were complicated by the nature of the
Japanese lunar calendar. Sunrise and sunset divided the day into two basic
segments, which were futher divided into 6 “hours” each. Due to seasonal shifts in daylight hours, the day and night hours would be of differing lengths
throughout the year except for the equinoxes. Wadokei could adjust for these variables, and in later years included complications like carillons and alarms. These clocks took many exquisitely decorated forms: Standing and wall mounted clocks driven by weights, as well as spring-driven mantel, cabinet, and pillow clocks.

In Europe, the late 17th through the early 19th centuries saw developments that would begin changing the pocket watch into a practical device. In 1675 when the Great Meireki Fire destroyed Tokyo, the balance spring was invented in England. This advance was followed by the adoption of ruby bearings, and numerous escapement advances. Abraham Breguet brought
further technical developments that made the pocket watch a truly practical timekeeping instrument, though not a prevalent one until the industrial revolution. In isolation from Europe, Japan’s
clock making masters remained ignorant of these centuries of development.

Though a series of diplomatic requests and direct incursions stating in the 1790s by Russia and England failed to end the Japanese seclusion, foreign pressure to reopen Japan only continued to increase with naval incursions from Britain, France, Holland, and the USA
through the mid 1840s. Finally in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US had limited success in opening two new ports (Shimoda and Hakodate) — primarily through a show of
overwhelming force. The British and Russians quickly followed suit. In the following years more unequal treaties and concession by the government weakened the policy of isolation.

In America, the Civil War fostered the industrialized mass production of pocket watches in the early 1860s. From here through the early 1900s, the pocket watch was the practical timekeeping device of choice. No longer just toys for the rich, the relatively greater accessibility brought much wider use. (American Florence Jones brought this concept of industrial production to Schaffhausen in 1868, where he would found

Concurrently in Japan, the encroaching foreign “threat” combined with growing civil unrest within the archipelago undermined the authority of the shogunate which was already weakened by ideological infighting and military stagnation. Decrepitude and crisis opened it to a coup: In 1867 Prince Mutsuhito
succeeded to the Imperial throne. As Emperor Meiji he “restored” Imperial rule in 1868 after Yoshinobu, the 15th Shogun, surrendered in Edo. Emperor Meiji moved the Imperial court from Kyoto to Edo in 1869, all while supporters of the shogunate continued to fight on in the north — eventually to be defeated. Once he formally entered the great city, it ceased to be Edo and became “The Eastern Capital,” Tokyo.

This marked the beginning of the rapid modernization of Japan as it strove to “catch up” to the Western powers which it had fallen behind in technological and social development. Public education was instituted in 1872, as was the western solar calendar and system of time. This brought vast change to the
Japanese clock making industry in 1875 with new industrialized clock manufacturing facilities, and the first
Japanese pocket watch and calibre prototypes in 1879. This period also saw the destruction of most wadokei, or of their export to the west as ornamental object d’art. Few remain in Japan to this day.

At the same time the new Meiji government began to strip the samurai
aristocracy of its power and privileges. Feudalism was abolished in 1871 and the 300 samurai fiefs are divided into 72 prefectures. In 1873 the samurai monopoly of military force ended with the creation of a conscript military of which the Emperor was Commander-in-Chief. The wearing of the two swords and other samurai regalia were banned, and their stipends were continually reduced and then abolished. A number of samurai revolts had to be quelled throughout the 1870s.

The year 1881 saw two events of great significance to the future of horology: In the vallee de Joux, the founding of Audemars Piguet, and in the ever-fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo the opening of the K. Hattori & Co. Ltd. clock and watch retail shop by Kintaro Hattori. Political and social reforms continued to sweep through Japan as Hattori shifted his business from simple retail to include manufacturing: In 1892 he opened Seikosha Co. Ltd in Ishiwara-cho, Tokyo. Beginning first with the production of clocks, it would soon start making the first production pocket watches in Japan. In 1894 a two-story clock tower was added to the Ginza shop, making it landmark of the district.

The dawn of the 20th century saw the wristlet watch created and propagated by modern military necessity. In 1913 Hattori & Co. began the production of wristlet watches under the “Laurel” brand name. They were the first enamel-dial watches ever completely manufactured at the Seikosha factory. I expect that they were of great use to the Japanese Imperial military in that period of increasingly frequent armed conflict. 1917 would see K. Hattori & Co. Ltd. become a public company.

One year later the Shoko Watch Research Company was founded in Tokyo. Once they began marketing consumer timepieces, then-Mayor of Tokyo Shinpei Gotoh bestowed the name “Citizen” upon the company’s products — though it did not formally adopt the name until 1930. When Tokyo was leveled by an earthquake in 1923, it was former-Mayor Gotoh who was put in charge of rebuilding Tokyo. One year after the earthquake, Hattori began producing wristwatches under the Seiko brand name.

The rise of ultranationalism at this time culminated in defacto military control of Japan from the mid 30s onward. The economy was shifted to wartime production and after 1936 consumer goods became increasingly scarce. Hattori opened a new factory in 1937, and Seikosha Co Ltd. became Daini Seikosha Co. Ltd — production rose to 1.2 million units per year. Seikosha was perhaps the most important manufacturer of military wristwatches and clocks for Japanese naval aviation.

The ceasefire of August 16, 1945 was shortly followed by the formal surrender of Sept. 2, 1945, and a peace treaty in 1951. Under American military occupation the country was demilitarized, the peerage abolished, the zaibatsu (large monopolistic corporations) were broken up and legally prohibited. In the new constitution of 1947, Article IX prohibited Japan from maintaining a military force, resulting in the requirement that Japan would continue to provide military bases for the US in Japan even after the end of the occupation. This
controversial necessity would have positive economic benefits for Japan when it became a staging point for the US in its involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars. In the Korean War alone, US military procurements reached 2.3 billon dollars (over three years).

Rapid reindustrialization followed the Korean war in the mid-1950s, also seeing the production of Seiko’s first automatic watches in 1955. But for the most part at this time, Seiko and Citizen were focused upon producing simple time-only handwinds and handwound single-button chronographs. This would change as the early 60s brought expansion and technical advances. This subsequent period saw the introduction of many of the classic Seiko trademarks including the Bellmatic, World Time, King Seiko, Grand Seiko, Seiko 5 – also the Seiko 5 Sportsmatic. 1965 saw the introduction of the 150m Seiko Diver auto — the first dive watch produced in Japan, and in 1967 the 300m Seiko Diver Pro.

In 1969 Seiko produced the world’s first automatic column-wheel chronograph, beating both the Breitling-led development group and Zenith-Movado to market. These chronographs were very popular with American airmen and other military units, as were the Diver watches. Sold under the Speed Timer and Seiko 5 Sports Chrono names — amongst others — they featured one or two subdials, and had day and date guichet displays. It is these watches, the Seiko 5s, Divers and chronographs, when brought back by US servicemen serving in Vietnam, that finally introduced Seiko to the US consumer.

1969 also saw the fateful introduction of Seiko’s Astron 35 SQ — the first production wristwatch incorporating quartz technology. At first it posed no threat to mechanical watches, as the early models were as expensive as a small car. 1974 saw Seiko found the Credor brand of high-end quartz watches. It may be strange for us to think so, but quartz was a luxury product at that time.

In 1971 observatory competitions in Neuchâtel were suspended indefinitely after a petition and then the threat of boycott by several prestigious Swiss wristwatch manufacturers, because Seiko had begun to dominate the results, winning two years in succession. It wasn’t the arrival of quartz which brought mechanical accuracy competitions in Switzerland to an end, but losing a fair fight to Japan.

Seiko continued to innovate with mechanical watches in this dawning quartz age: In 1975 Seiko’s 600m Diver Pro automatic was the first watch to use a titanium case — five years before IWC and Porsche Design. But by 1978 the Seiko Twin Quartz achieved an accuracy of +/-5 seconds a year, which must have foreshadowed the doom of mechanical timepieces worldwide. Though quartz technology did eventually gain primacy at Seiko, to the best of my knowledge they never completely halted the production of mechanical watches and movements. In part two we will explore the diversity of mechanical watches and calibres which form the living legacy of

Special thanks to Bob, Wayne Lee, and Kohei Saito.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (1760 – 1849); scan by Mark Harden

Illustration from The Tale of Genji by Shuseki

Painting from the series 108 popular heroes of Suikoden by Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

Autumn moon at Tsukuda from the series “Eight famous views of Edo” by Hokusai

Watercolor by Toyohara Yamauchi

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2000

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