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G-Shocking with Casio in Japan

This is where Casio hammers, prods, pokes, rattles, drags, dunks and even zaps all G-Shock watches before they make it to your wrist.

A few months ago, I was invited to visit Casio’s facilities in Japan with a group of writers and retail partners. The first day of our visit started off at company headquarters in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.

Shibuya is one of Tokyo's more well-known "cities within a city" and a short bus ride from our hotel in Shinjuku. And within HQ there is a well laid out area that tells the story of Casio.

As this exhibit describes, Casio is more than just a company that makes watches, and in fact it started quite differently. In fact, the proper name for the company is Casio Computer Co., Ltd. and in its first incarnation in 1946 it was known as Kashio Seisakujo.

But this was just a starting point. Casio Computer Co., Ltd. launched in 1957, the result of an idea to design and manufacture calculators.

The item shown above is a calculator. Clearly, technology has advanced, and sizes have shrunk significantly. In addition, today's Casio also makes electronic keyboards, e-dictionaries, and is an industry leader in projectors.

Casio today is not known, by and large, as a "classical" watchmaker. By that I mean a maker of watches with mechanical movements. And to be just as clear, it is evident that Casio has no desire to enter that area. The Casiotron marked Casio’s entry into the watch business in the early 1970s.

And from that moment, Casio indelibly marked the evolution of watches not just in Japan, but the world at large.

Calculator watches are seemingly trivial items now, but in the 1980s they were a cause for panic in high school math classes. It is rumored that during one SAT exam in 1986, a young aspirant (who is now a certain writer and watch enthusiast) was forced to hand over his watch to the proctor mid-test, or face having his scores voided.

Moving ahead

But Casio was constantly moving forward, with innovations in functionality and durability. While I personally am loathe to speak of ‘company DNA,’ it is safe to say that what runs constant through the story of Casio's development as a watch brand is constant evolution, despite what some would deem radical, sudden, revolution.

The Casio of today embodies a group of brands, with G-Shock as the best known. Today's G-Shock was a big step ahead of the times when it began, but it was in many ways a logical next step in the constant evolution of Casio's watch product development.

First Day

Our first day continued with visits to several specialized Casio G-Shock retail outlets. We have all seen shop-within-shop concepts, particularly with the big dogs from Swatch, LVMH and Richemont. But very seldom do we see a more affordable brand hop on the board and paddle out to these deep waters. But to Casio's credit, it has done something very special with its concepts.

A G-SHOCK Display.

Visit any mono brand boutique, and it is not going to be able to hold absolutely everything available. That is just a fact of life. Team Casio, however, has created a very welcoming space with a fairly comprehensive selection of what is available in boutiques as well as the Casio store-within-a-store concepts.

But G-Shock has grown and evolved beyond mere watches. It has grown, in many ways, even beyond a Casio brand into its own identity. G-Shock has become something of a cultural touchstone for several generations and continues to attract new customers from virtually every demographic.

The components inside a G-SHOCK Full Metal 5000.

I am a perfect case study of this. I was honestly not prepared for the visceral onslaught that I felt when wandering through these G-Shock specialist locations. And it became very clear to me that G-Shock is not merely a brand, it has become something of a movement.

The G-SHOCK Men

Every movement needs an icon, and G-Shock has a few of them. G-SHOCK men, robotic characters both small and large, protect and promote the spirit of the G-Shock.

G-SHOCK man in display.

It is a bit of a whimsical idea, but I can tell you that on our travels, these G-SHOCK men were probably the most photographed items. Customers also frequently request them for possible purchase. And in many ways that sums up what (for me at least) is the spirit of G-Shock: very serious, very durable – and still fun.

You could almost see the G-SHOCK man staring in his very own action film. And the spirit of fun is also found in the bright, colorful range of offerings. (During our visit, more than a few requests were made to purchase the small G-Shock mascots, but all were politely declined.)

Trying to break stuff

The second day of our visit to Casio started out with a bus ride from our hotel in Shinjuko to the Hamura Research and Development Center in Hamura-shi, Tokyo.

Now for those unfamiliar, allow me to acquaint you with some realities about Tokyo. It is really, really big. How big? Really big. Hearing military jets overhead it suddenly occurred to me that we must be fairly close to Yokota Air Base which is located in Fusa, and just around the corner from where I used to live in Hachioji.

A water resistance tester.

But I am not going to waste your time traveling down my personal memory lane. What I am going to do is share what a lot of ten-year-old boys (and I suspect girls) enjoy doing - trying to break stuff.

The whole idea of the G-Shock was to make something that could not be broken (more on that to come). But you can't just say something is unbreakable–you also have to prove it. And at this wonderful center in the Tokyo hinterlands Casio has created a facility where it can try to imagine and replicate every stress, situation, random bad thing that could happen to a watch.

The original G-Shock was born of a lot of different things - anger, loss, frustration, denial, determination, and finally triumph. But this was a long, slow process.

Testing for electronic shock resistance.

In one of the historic displays I saw a watch completely covered in tape, which for me at least is truly symbolic of that painful process. Kikuo Ibe, the creator of the G-Shock, was wearing a traditional, normal watch that fell off his wrist and broke.

Out of that loss, and his need to build a better mousetrap, Ibe worked and worked to develop an unbreakable watch, creating the first G-Shock thirty-five years ago. And the notion of a ball bubbled to the surface as the ultimate shock absorber.

Preparing for the G-Shock hammer test.

But needless to say, Casio did not get to have the baby without the labor. Keep in mind that one of the central tenets of the G-Shock is water resistance - typically starting at 200 meters. Well, the folks in Hamura weren't satisfied with the typical testing devices used by other watch companies. So they use quite a few custom-developed testing devices. The demands put on the G-Shock represent a level and commitment to testing that is not really found anywhere else in the watchmaking world.

The mud test.

To Yamagata

Our third day with Casio began with an early start as we headed off to Tokyo Station to get the Shinkansen north toward the Yamagata factory site, where Casio manufactures its high-end Casio G-Shocks (and a few other brands) in a new 4,000-square-meter facility.

Inside the the Yamagata factory, where premium G-Shocks are manufactured and tested.

It is important to note that although only the high-end G-Shocks are assembled here, this is also the place where all of the G-Shock movements are made. Owing to this, in many ways the Yamagata facility may be the most important jewel in the G-Shock crown.

Casio has created an extremely automated system that ensures that the components of the G-Shock's movements, and the movements themselves, are produced without an individual person required at every single process.

While that might fly in the face of horological purists, I have to be honest that it was pretty amazing. And it also speaks to what is so amazing about the G-Shock itself - an incredibly accurate, durable watch at a very reasonable price.

Assembly lines at Yamagata for G-SHOCK and OCEANUS.

Earthquake resistant

And just as the G-Shock itself is made to be indestructible, certain steps have been taken to make sure that the facility in Yamagata can keep humming along, even in the event of an earthquake.

The night I arrived in Tokyo (or the morning after) there was apparently a fairly significant earthquake that did quite a bit of damage in the northern island of Hokkaido. Being an old Japan hand myself I slept right through it. But it was a hot topic of conversation at the breakfast table the next morning.

And what does that have to do with G-Shock? Well, try to imagine a massive (or even slight) earthquake hit a facility with a lot of solid, but still vulnerable machinery.

High-tech machinery at Casio's newly built Yamagata factory.

Well, the team at Casio thought about it, and therefore there is a section of the flooring at the Yamagata facility that is set up in such a way so as to mitigate any potential damage done by an earthquake. A special flooring section has been installed to ensure that should the inevitable happen (this is Japan, after all), the floor will shift, adjust, and accommodate the tectonic shifting, and thus the line will continue to run.

One other interesting thing to note: women are the majority of the actual watchmakers responsible for the Premium Production assembly. When I broached this topic with the folks touring us through the facility, she confirmed my suspicion.

Rhyme and reason

The Yamagata production facility underscores the reality that nothing at Casio really happens within a vacuum. There is a rhyme and a reason for pretty much everything.

And while it is romantic to extol the virtues of hand made, artisanal watchmaking, it is also important to understand that not everyone has $5,000 or $10,000 to spend on a watch. And when you really consider what goes into making a G-Shock watch, it is really somewhat staggering that Casio can put so much quality, reliability, and durability into a watch with so many functions– and then sell it for such a low price.

Assembly and quality control at Yamagata.

I have seen some fairly impressive, beautifully upholstered facilities in Switzerland, and I absolutely appreciate the historical pull of some of the dyed-in-the wool historical brands. But what I saw in my three days in Japan with Casio really was a bit of a re-awakening for me. It took me back to what I really loved about watches in the first place.

Click here to read more about Casio's G-Shock collections.

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