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The 8 Best Japanese Watch Brands - A Complete Guide 2021

Japan is a giant in watchmaking, with some of the world’s best watches in every category and at nearly every price point coming from the Land of the Rising Sun. When you think of Japanese watches, your mind likely heads towards inexpensive quartz and mechanical options from brands like Casio, Seiko, and Citizen, and you’re absolutely not wrong to feel that way. Japan is perhaps the value leader in the global watch industry, a status owed to watches like the Casio G-Shock collection and inexpensive automatic Seiko diver’s watches like the SKX series. However, Japan is also an excellent source for watches in the mid-level, luxury, and high watchmaking categories, both from large corporations as well as some exciting newer independent brands. You just have to know where to look, which is where I come in.

In this article, I’ll be taking a look at some of the best brands coming out of Japan right now. While there are certainly more Japanese brands than I have listed, I’ll cover the big ones you need to know as well as a few smaller brands that should be on your radar, all to provide a general overview of the Japanese watch industry. To keep things interesting, I’ll list a couple of my favorite watches as well as a recent release here and there. For more Japanese watches, be sure to check out my comprehensive blog, The Best Seiko Watches, as well as, The 40 Best Automatic Watches Under $500, which is also chock-full of watches from Japan.

Let’s get started.

Casio

There’s a good chance your first watch was a Casio. Casio was founded in 1946 by Tadao Kashio, whose first major product was a yubiwa pipe — go look it up, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. In the Fifties, Kashio would go on to make electro-mechanical calculators. It wasn’t until the Seventies, however, that Casio made its first watch. It was called the Casiotron, which, unsurprisingly, was a quartz watch. From then on, Casio took off and started introducing more varied models with all sorts of different functions. These watches were accurate, tough, fun, and affordable. It’s little wonder then that Casio watches were and are the first watch for so many people.

Today, Casio is probably most prominently represented by the G-Shock collection. Introduced in 1983, G-Shocks have grown to become cultural and horological icons. And in the past decade, Casio started to introduce more upmarket and advanced G-Shocks featuring stainless steel construction, carbon fibre cases, advanced sensors like GPS, and Bluetooth connectivity. The MR-G lineup of G-Shocks, in particular, also celebrates Japanese history by featuring watches decorated by traditional Japanese craftsmen using techniques like the hammer finish.

My Favorite Casio Watches:

Casio G-Shock DW5600 - $70

Considered the G-Shock by many enthusiasts, the 5600 family shares a lot of DNA with the original G-Shock, the DW5000C. For less than $50 in most cases, the 5600 has 200m of water resistance, incredible shock resistance, and a useful set of functions including a stopwatch.

Casio A168WA-1 - $25

As one of the least expensive real watches you can buy, the astonishing Casio A168WA-1 features an alarm function, a 1/100th of a second chronograph, and a surprisingly durable build, all for less than $25 in most cases.

Something New from Casio:

Casio G-Shock Frogman GWF-A1000 - $800

For the first time, Casio’s much-celebrated, ISO-rated G-Shock Frogman diver’s watch has been equipped with an analog-digital display that should help bridge the gap for some enthusiasts who don’t typically mess with digital.

Citizen

The Japanese watch industry is, in many ways, dominated by two forces: Citizen and Seiko. Before Citizen was known as Citizen, it was founded in 1918 as the Shokosha Watch Research Institute. It took the name Citizen after being taken over by a group of Japanese and Swiss investors. In the Seventies, along with compatriots Seiko, Citizen started the mass production of inexpensive but highly accurate quartz watches. In 1976, Citizen took quartz technology further with the creation of the world’s first solar-powered analog quartz watch. This eventually led to the development of Eco-Drive technology, which now powers many of Citizen’s watches, and is a powerful value proposition for the brand.

Quartz technology continues to be one of the main pillars of the company. Just last year, the company brought out the Eco-Drive Caliber 0100, which Citizen claims is the most accurate watch ever made, with a quartz movement that is accurate to an astonishing +/-1 second per year. Citizen also produces movements for many other brands through its Miyota group. Movements like the 8215 and 9016 are as famous and ubiquitous as the ETA-2824 or Sellita SW200, especially among microbrand enthusiasts. Finally, Citizen has also made some major acquisitions in the past decade or so as it expands in production and offerings. In 2007 it acquired Bulova and then Manufacture La Joux-Perret in 2012.

My Favorite Citizen Watches:

Citizen Promaster Aqualand BN2039-59E - $556

One of Citizen’s most historic watches is the Aqualand, an analog-digital diver’s watch released in 1985. The most recent incarnation of that design concept is the BN2039-59E, an Eco-Drive (solar) powered, analog-diver’s watch with an integrated depth gauge.

Citizen Promaster Skyhawk A-T JY8108-53E and JY8075-51E - $716

In either color, the Promaster Skyhawk is excellent evidence of the care and tech that goes into Citizen’s watch designs. Outside of something like a smart watch, the Citizen Skyhawk A-T offers about as much data as you can ask for in a solar-rechargeable package with an unnecessary-but-awesome 200 meters of water resistance.

Something New from Citizen:

Citizen Super Titanium Armor - $520

With a name that sounds like the title of an anime film, Citizen’s Super Titanium series is constructed from a new titanium alloy that’s five times harder than stainless steel and 40% lighter to boot. In addition, the uber-modern design with an integrated titanium bracelet is striking, a little bit crazy, and also pretty fun.

Credor

Credor is one of the best-kept secrets of Japanese watchmaking. Most people have never heard of Credor, much less know about the incredible watches that the brand produces totally in-house. Technically, Credor is part of Seiko, but you won’t find any Seiko branding on their watches. The brand was conceived in the Seventies to represent the pinnacle of Seiko’s know-how and craftsmanship. Today, many of Credor’s watches feature Seiko’s Spring Drive movements, but with technical enhancements and a higher level of hand finishing. To ensure they remain competitive with the Swiss and Germans, Credor has even consulted with the great Philippe Dufour on finishing techniques.

The watch that has come to represent Credor is the Eichi. The first Eichi watch was released in 2008, and was later replaced by the new Eichi II in 2015. The Eichi II is a deceptive watch. At first impression, it looks just like a simple three-hander. The dial, however, is beautifully executed Japanese porcelain, and all of the markers are painted by hand. The handiwork doesn’t stop there: The Eichi case is polished by hand, the blued steel hands are made by hand, and the Spring Drive movement within is decorated by hand as well. This is Japanese watchmaking at its best, and a brand more enthusiasts should get to know.

My Favorite (New) Credor Watch:

Credor Eichi II - $54,000

For many, the Credor Eichi II represents the pinnacle of Seiko’s high watchmaking prowess, with a Spring Drive movement as beautiful as the hand painted porcelain dial. This blue-dialed version is also Credor’s hottest new watch having been released earlier in 2020.

Grand Seiko

The first Grand Seiko was released in 1960 as Seiko’s way of saying that it could produce watches that were as good as, if not better than, any of the luxury offerings from Switzerland. The brand has undergone some big changes in recent years. Likely in an effort to influence customer perception, in 2017 Seiko made Grand Seiko its own brand, with a completely separate leadership, design, and production scheme. One result of this move is that Grand Seiko watches released after 2017 now only have the Grand Seiko logo at 12 o’clock — the Seiko logo is nowhere to be found.

The modern Grand Seiko is generally recognized for offering tremendous bang for the buck when it comes to craftsmanship. The cases feature the brand’s signature Zaratsu polish, which is achieved by pressing the case against a rotating tin plate. This is done by a skilled hand and requires years of experience to execute properly. The dial work is also widely regarded as some of the best at any price point, with wonderfully textured surfaces and indices and hands that are elegant and beautifully finished. Grand Seiko’s most iconic and well-known piece is the SBGA011, affectionately known to enthusiasts as the “Snowflake”, a watch that gets its name from its heavily textured white dial, which is said to have been inspired by snowy fields around the Grand Seiko manufacture in the Suwa region. Most recently, the brand introduced a new high-beat caliber called the 9SA5 that will power a new generation of watches. This movement features an entirely new escapement, balance, and gear train, and further demonstrates the incredible value packed into Grand Seiko watches.

My Favorite Grand Seiko Watches:

Grand Seiko SBGA413 - $6,300

If you’ve never had the opportunity to handle a Grand Seiko, you’d have a hard time imagining how incredibly well finished Grand Seiko watches are, especially given their lower price point compared to other luxury brands. The SBGA413 has an incredible dial with a very light pink color and hand-executed texture combined with GS’s impressive Spring Drive caliber.

Grand Seiko SBGA229 - $6,000

For the sportier side of Grand Seiko, you can’t go wrong with their mainstay diver’s watch, the SBGA229. With a Spring Drive caliber, a hearty helping of Grand Seiko’s industry-leading Lumi Brite luminescent material, and an ISO 6425 rating, the SBGA229 is a luxury diver’s watch that rivals watches at twice the price.

Something New from Grand Seiko:

Grand Seiko SBGA427 - $5,000

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Grand Seiko’s SBGA427 and came away impressed with the highly legible, classically-styled package with a fun pop of color in the form of a green seconds hand and power reserve indicator hand. For a GS that is a little bit more funky compared to much of the collection this is one to check out.

Hajime Asaoka

Thanks in part to the country’s cultural appreciation for craftsmanship, Japan is home to several impressive if lesser known brands, including Hajime Asaoka, one of the most prominent Japanese independent watchmakers. Like so many others in his trade, Hajime Asaoka’s namesake founder is self-taught, having acquired much of his skills and knowledge by reading George Daniels’ seminal Watchmaking and watching YouTube videos, which I would agree is a great way to learn about watches.

Asaoka’s claim to fame is the time-only Tsunami watch, a classic-looking watch with a twist — it has a 16mm (which is huge) titanium balance. Since then he has added new models to his collection, including two tourbillons and a chronograph, all of them completely handmade by Asaoka. Most recently, Asaoka has released a new collection called Kurono that offers markedly more affordable watches. These watches aren’t made by Asaoka himself and feature third-party movements, but he designs them and oversees production to ensure that the pieces meet his high standards. After all, despite the considerably lower price, these Kurono watches still bear his name on the caseback, a name I think more enthusiasts should be saying right now.

My Favorite Hajime Asaoka Watches:

Hajime Asaoka Tsunami - $27,000

As the brand’s most iconic model, the Tsunami is a business in the front, party in the back scenario thanks to the restrained, small seconds sector dial and enchanting, handmade caliber viewed from through the caseback.

Hajime Asaoka “Chronograph” - $145,000

Built around a stunning open-worked caliber design, Asaoka’s aptly-named “Chronograph” puts the brand’s incredible artisanal watchmaking front and center by eschewing the dial altogether. While not necessarily the most legibly chronogra[h out there today, Hajima Asaoka’s new “Chronograph” is truly mesmerizing to behold and as beautifully finished as almost anything coming from Switzerland.

Orient

Orient is often said to be owned by Seiko, but the actual nature of the relationship is a little more complicated than that. Orient is a subsidiary of Seiko Epson Corporation, whose main business is printers and imaging-related equipment. In turn, Seiko Epson Corporation is one of the three main companies composing the Seiko Group. Seiko Watch Corporation, the company that actually makes Seiko watches, is part of Seiko Holdings Corporation, which, like the Seiko Epson Corporation, is another one of the three main companies of the Seiko Group, along with Seiko Instruments Inc. Confusing, I know, but suffice to say, Seiko and Orient are operated as totally separate entities, albeit with some upper echelon business and financial ties.

Though the history of Orient can be traced further back, the company as we know it today was established in 1950. A highlight model from their history is the Fineness, which was launched in 1967 and was, at its time, the thinnest self-winding watch with a day-date complication. Now, the brand is a leader in affordable mechanical watches, and is often mentioned in the same breath as its compatriot Seiko. Orient’s most popular watch these days is arguably the Bambino — a classically styled dress watch which has seen many iterations over the years. Orient is also popular for its dive watches and the recent Kamasu, a hit amongst many dive watch lovers and one of my favorite value watches from Japan.

My Favorite Orient Watches:

Orient Kamasu - $280

For me, the Kamasu is one of the best diver’s watches and indeed best watches available for around $300. With a hacking and handwing caliber, a solid bracelet for the money, and a clean, distinctive dial design, the Kamasu is an aquatic Seiko killer at an affordable price.

Orient Maestro - $185

While Orient has a habit of nailing the value for money proposition, the Maestro is on another level altogether. With a high-end feel that belies its retail price, a solid automatic movement, and one of the best looking dials in its class, the Maestro is a dress watch from Orient that should be on every enthusiast’s radar.

Shop here.

Something new from Orient:

Orient Neptune - $480

While it isn’t brand new (released in 2018), the Orient Triton/Neptune is one of the watches that best embodies what Orient is all about once you jump up a bit from their entry-level price points. For around $500, you get a JIS-rated (Japanese Industrial Standard) diver’s watch with a hacking, handwinding, in-house caliber, great lume, and a surprisingly solid bracelet, all with a signature Orient design inspired by the brand’s legendary Saturation Diver model.

Minase

Though Minase is a relatively new player in the industry, established in 2005, its parent company, Kyowa and Co., has been in the manufacturing business for much longer. Kyowa and Co., a company associated with precision machining and engineering, was founded in 1963. Given its precision machining capabilities, one of its specialties is watch cases and bracelets. Eventually, the company decided they should dip their toes in the water and make their own complete watches as well, and Minase was born.

Given that their specialty is cases, it’s no surprise to see that many of Minase’s models have unusual and distinctive case designs which stand apart for their high levels of finishing. The brand’s eye-catching Five Windows model, for example, is so-named because its case features five pieces of sapphire crystal in its construction, to give owners a peek into its inner-workings. The Divido is another Minase watch that is worthy of attention. After all, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was spotted wearing one. The Divido is much more conventional-looking, but its highly angular case and highly detailed dial, once again, shows off the intense amount of metalwork that goes into a Minase watch.

My Favorite Minase Watch:

Minase Five Windows - $17,500

With a case featuring five sapphire-filled architectural cutouts to allow for easy viewing of the beautiful dial and movement surfaces, Minase is a leader in high-end case construction. The Five Windows is the brand’s signature design and a watch you’ll immediately recognize assuming you’re aware of its existence, which you should be.

Seiko

At this point, Seiko is synonymous with Japanese watchmaking. The company was founded in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori and got its start by selling and repairing watches and clocks. Just 11 years later, Hattori started producing clocks and then pocket watches, followed closely by the company’s, and Japan’s, first wristwatch –– in 1913. The 1960s was a period of rapid growth for the company. Not only did Seiko introduce the first Grand Seiko watch and also Japan’s first dive watch, but Seiko also gained international recognition by performing above expectations when compared to Swiss brands at the Neuchatel Observatory Competition. And in 1969, not only was Seiko one of the first to introduce a self-winding chronograph watch, it also launched the world’s first quartz watch, the Astron. As you know, quartz watches ended up being a little bit of a thing.

Now, Seiko is recognized as one of the few truly vertically integrated manufacturers in watchmaking, producing all components of its watches, including the cases, dials, crystals, and all movement components including the mainspring and balance spring. For its quartz watches, Seiko even grows its own quartz crystals. Because of its amazing watch manufacturing capability, it makes watches that span a wide range of price points, with an emphasis on the entry to mid level. Though it is arguably most famous today for its affordable dive watches, one of the brand’s biggest achievements is its Spring Drive movement, which I covered in detail here. Spring Drive is a hybrid electro-mechanical movement that consists of a mechanical geartrain and an electronic regulator. It is distinctive for its smooth gliding seconds hand, and its outstanding accuracy of +1/-1 second per day. It is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive and interesting watch calibers in existence today, and straight out of Japan.

My Favorite Seiko Watches:

Seiko SARB037 - (Discontinued)

Sure, they’re discontinued now and were only ever available in Japan to begin with, but the SARB037 is easily one of my favorite Seiko watches thanks to its stunning salmon-colored dial. Add to that the much-lauded features which have made the SARB series the industry icon that it is, and you have a really special yet hard to find Seiko. If you run across one, buy it.

Seiko SPB143 - $1,200

After much prodding from its gigantic internet fanbase, Seiko has finally produced an excellent diver’s watch full of vintage Seiko DNA but in a smaller 40.5mm case that works really well on a wider range of wrists. At around $1,000, the SPB series is a no brainer and a great way to get into Seiko’s higher-end offerings.