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The Japanese Watchmaking Industry


The small European country of Switzerland is known around the world for its watchmaking industry. Famous Swiss-made watches include luxury brands like TAG Heuer, Patek Philippe, Omega and Rolex, and also the more affordable Swatch brand. However, one other country has been steadily building up its reputation for well-made timepieces. Japan is often considered Switzerland’s main watchmaking rival.

The history of watchmaking in Japan is an interesting one. It all started with clocks in the 16th century. The first mechanical clock was brought to Japan in 1551 by a Spanish missionary as a present for a feudal lord. However, mechanical clocks were considered as mere decorative items at the time because Japan followed a different time system from the West. Old Japanese time was based on the lunar calendar, with irregular time units for day and night and for different seasons.

Christian missionaries later opened up a vocational school in Nagasaki where they taught Japanese students to make clocks, organs, and stargazing equipment. From this humble beginning, the Japanese eventually became master clockmakers. They built ornamental and complex table clocks which included things like alarms, chimes, and calendars. These clocks however, still followed the old Japanese time system.

In 1872, the Japanese government decided to adopt the Western solar calendar to replace the old Japanese lunar calendar. This led to the end of the old Japanese time system as well. Japanese watchmakers then began to make wall clocks with the newly adopted Western time system.

Then, in 1894, a Japanese manufacturing company obtained watchmaking equipment from a firm in the United States. Under the guidance of an American engineer, they began to produce pocket watches.

Demand for pocket watches grew in Japan and local production could not keep up! Established Swiss watchmakers started to export their pocket watches to Japan. A Japanese company, the Seiko Corporation, was one of the first importers of pocket watches from Switzerland for sale in the local market. The Seiko Corporation eventually opened its own factory producing Japanese-made pocket watches.

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missionary – someone sent to a different country or area to promote his or her own religion there
vocational – relating to education in particular technical skill
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