By getting to stroll around with Mr. Ryusuke Moriai, you got to live out a childhood dream for an afternoon in Tokyo – minus being able to challenge him at Street Fighter in an arcade
This is the guy responsible for the design of G-Shock and many other Casio watches. It is worth mentioning why this was a big deal to me. As a product of the 1980s in America, I was part of a special generation who grew up with a lot of Japanese culture in the form of video games, animated television shows and movies, and of course, toys. At the same time, I spent my childhood wearing cool Japanese watches. Well, just Casio watches, actually.
As a kid, I didn’t really know of anything you could put on your wrist that was more desirable than a Casio. I was aware of other watches, sure, but none of them seemed particularly appealing at the time. Casio watches were light, durable, easy to read, full of functions, something that my parents were willing to afford, and pretty cool-looking. I actually recall with some specificity the feelings I had when comparing my digital Casio watch with analog watches.
Using hands to tell the time seemed primitive, and why would you want a timepiece that told you only the time? Especially when Casio proved it could tell you the temperature, compass direction, and of course, help you calculate mathematics.
Growing up, I wasn’t a watch lover, but rather a Casio lover. I didn’t know that interesting watches were sold outside of a sporting goods store, and I loved how I felt a connection between the Japanese culture I was enjoying as a kid and the thing that was on my wrist. How did I know Casio was a Japanese company back then? Well, because aside from English, the instructions were in Japanese.
It is my generation that the major three Japanese watchmakers are now trying to court more than ever. They know they captured our hearts as kids, and today as adults they want to keep that relationship going with new high-end watches they hope will appeal to the lifestyle demands we have and evoke the nostalgia so many of us enjoy.
Mr. Ryusuke Moriai wears one of these “luxury” watches, a high-end G-Shock which exists mainly as the MR-G (review here) and MT-G (hands-on here) product families. His title at Casio is a bit confusing, but he is the guy who heads Casio timepiece design, and he is either directly or indirectly responsible for some of the world’s most popular high-production timepieces of the last 30 or so years.
My time with Mr. Moriai came as a result of a request to Casio to help me understand what inspires the design of G-Shock watches. Never a company to disappoint, during a trip to Japan to view their “premium production line” (PPL) at Yamagata Casio they generously gave my group a translator and Mr. Moriai’s time to share with me where the design of G-Shock watches comes from.
The world’s most important sport watches don’t have a distinctive look by accident. What started as a purposeful design in the early 1980s when Mr. Kikuo Ibe invented the G-Shock has transformed into a universe of watches each with their own stories, aesthetics, and personalities.
At their core, G-Shock watches follow two values at Casio.
First is “absolute toughness,” which means that they should keep pushing the limits of durability, and second is to follow the spirit of “never give up.” This, for them, means innovation and problem-solving should never end. The next watch you make should be your greatest, and as an engineer or designer you should never give up on trying to solve technical problems.
The first watch Mr. Moriai designed is actually still produced today. He was responsible for the Casio F-91W, which was supposed to be small, easy to read, and very durable for the money. It also happened to be very cheap – I don’t think it has ever sold at a retail price of more than $30. Most industrial designers don’t get so lucky on their first attempt, but Mr. Moriai was.
In fact, Casio as a company has been very lucky in their success selling modern watches. You see more Casio products on people’s wrists in Japan than pretty much any other watch – and the situation isn’t that dissimilar in other parts of the world where looking cool and being on time are a priority.
Casio product development is surprisingly complex.
As the company’s development department never actually finishes anything, the product development departments are constantly working to not only bring out new model families, but to also improve on the products that they already make. For this reason, people who follow the brand have been able to see many generations of such famed watches as the Frogman, Mudman, and many of the numerical series of G-Shock watches like the 6900 and 5600 series.
Casio G-Shock watches begin life with a functional purpose.
This is actually a bit unique in the watch world as many timepieces today begin life as a theme or marketing prompt rather than “we need a watch that can do X.” This is actually because Casio is among the few modern watch companies whose customers are still putting their timepieces through rough conditions and taking them into abusive environments.
Even Seiko, which produces many fine dive watches, can’t claim that a lot of its buyers are actually taking their dive watches underwater. Casio, on the other hand – while it has a large group of “lifestyle” and fashion buyers – by comparison, still has more people actually “needing” their watches to be durable than any other modern watchmaker. If you think about that carefully, you can imagine how it translates itself into company culture.
In order to create sales, Casio’s strategy has been to keep offering their customers more features and more watches for specific needs. Think about how narrow Casio has gotten over the years with the intended purposes of their watches. Today, they make watches not just for diving, but for commercial diving, recreational diving, rescue diving, etc. They have watches for people who are soldiers, surfers, rescue workers, muddy rescue workers, boat workers, pilots, skateboarders, and even for glamping (“glamorous camping”).
Each of these worlds has its own associated needs but also cultures. Casio has been inspired by tanks when developing the look of its Mudmaster collection, and nautical equipment when developing the Gulfmaster. It does this because of one more product design motivation Casio was very explicit about: that its watches are both cool to wear and also fun to use.
If anything, Casio is deeply unpretentious – a trait I admire greatly. So what does that mean? Cool to look at on the wrist, and fun to operate when doing even mundane things like checking the barometric pressure or using a stopwatch.
Mr. Moriai himself is a vehicle lover, which shouldn’t be a surprise as the overlap between cars, motorcycles, planes, and watches is common.
In Japan, this is often expressed in a love of small, fast cars and motorcycles. In subtle but typically profound ways he is able to draw aesthetic parallels between the things he and his design team love and the watches they design. With that noted, I will say once again that each new G-Shock watch begins with functionality in mind and not mere cool design. It isn’t that function is over form, but rather that function becomes form.
The heart of each G-Shock watch is the movement module which is always its most delicate component. From the beginning of G-Shock watches, the movement was suspended by a few points in the case so as to maximize resistance to shock, drops, and vibration.
Some more sophisticated G-Shock watches actually mount the movement in a material they call Alpha Gel. Casio actually has us test this material by throwing a raw egg at it (yes, throw) and demonstrating how the egg would not break (it didn’t, and I know because I threw the egg).
The surrounding case must also prevent dirt and water from entering it and must also allow for the various pushers to connect with the movement.
The pushers must also be safe to use when the watch is dirty or underwater. Thus, the fact that so many G-Shock watches tend to have a distinctive and familiar look is because they all employ similar techniques to result in the same functionality.
In the mid-1990s Casio was given an interesting gift. Just a few years prior to that, the design philosophy at Casio was actually pretty conservative. Many people there believed that G-Shock watches should only be black in color. What happened in the 1990s was the adoption of G-Shock watches into American youth culture. From street fashion to surfing, G-Shock watches became an important lifestyle symbol. Casio responded quickly, catering to this demographic by swiftly transforming the G-Shock into a fashion icon. This resulted in tons of interesting colors as well as freedom for designers like Mr. Moriai to go a bit nuts. This is where the culture of wildly multi-colored G-Shock watches came from, and such watches remain a cult hit today.
From stores that sell hundreds of ironic and quirky stickers to colorful crepe dessert stands, Mr. Moriai illustrates for me the rich palette of hues that inspired him when thinking about new G-Shock watch designs. He is also inspired by the people on the streets in places like Harajuku – where Tokyo teens are known for their impeccably detailed and spirited costume-style clothing.
In Japan especially, people like Mr. Moriai are local celebrities. When entering a watch store that specializes in curating cool affordable watches (mostly Casio), he is pulled aside for pictures and autographs. I ask him to show me some of his favorite designs which he selects and then talks about. His capacity for entertaining wild colors among his preferences is impressive as is the type of watches he chose that he is the proudest of. You can tell he is a stickler for symmetry, and he likes rich, three-dimensional design that carries from the case to the dial.
Mr. Moriai impressed me when saying that he actually prefers to design digital dials as opposed to analog ones. This might come as a surprise to many people who have clearly noticed that Casio has been developing so many analog watches as opposed to purely digital ones. The reason for this is that Casio has found that analog G-Shock watches for some reason tend to sell better. Moreover, designers like Mr. Moriai are fascinated by the three-dimensional spaces you can play with in an analog dial as opposed to a flat digital one that uses a screen. His biggest hopes for the coming years are that screen technology will develop to make it more colorful, brighter, and with more depth to the eye. Of course, it would need to follow the G-Shock philosophy of “worry-free” wear, meaning that the watch doesn’t need battery changes/charges (regularly or at all) and that they be highly durable.
I agree with Mr. Moriai in that I find the legibility and utility of digital screens to be superior to analog dials even if the latter tends to look cooler in many instances. Casio has innovated greatly when it comes to making watches that consume less power, but where it still doesn’t have the answer (no one really does) is how to actually generate more power. Such additional power would be the key to expanding Casio watch functionality beyond the limits of what we see today.
When asked what his dream Casio watch to make would be, Mr. Moriai once again reads my mind in talking about a watch that is meant to survive being in space. This isn’t just his dream, but the dream of many watch companies. I personally think that Casio would make an incredible space travel watch. One of the reasons they don’t yet is that they don’t want to guess how such a watch would function. Without the efficient ability to actually work with astronauts in space to test and develop watches, this is a dream the brand might have to put on the backburner for a while.
r. Moriai admits to not always understanding what the rest of the world wants in terms of product development. A weakness of all the major Japanese watchmakers is that they are so ethnocentric in their product development strategies. While they, of course, want to produce watches that will sell well in other countries, they don’t always know how to. What Casio does know is that they seem to have a winning formula with many of their products that helps them sell well. One of the most important things Casio has in their favor is price. I really can’t think of any other watch products which are so innovate at these prices save for smartwatches. And most smartwatches aren’t nearly as dependable and good-looking as your average G-Shock these days.
Casio, of course, has gotten into the smartwatch world with the WSD-F10 and the more recent Pro Trek WSD-F20, and before that had started to experiment with Bluetooth connection in some watches. The next phase will be even more interesting as Casio will begin to deploy new technologies which ensure that all of their watches can reliably and universally connect to outside signals in order to be always on time anywhere in the world. It isn’t clear how Casio will do this, but my understanding is that it will not be using GPS (for all devices) nor reliance on radio signals from atomic clocks. I’m happy to report that it sounds like Casio will continue to be a brand to closely watch in the future.
Let me return to the topic of prices because I think it is very important. While the larger luxury watch industry inspires me with interesting new watches all the time, most of them I am forced to ignore as their prices are beyond what I can now (or will ever be able to) afford. The hubris of the luxury watch industry is in believing that there will always be enough people with both the money and passion to appreciate what they do. They often get so much right, aside from the price. I know for a fact that while Casio’s comparatively pedestrian and Switzerland’s prestigious “toys for boys” appeal to the same parts of people’s personalities, only brands like Casio can truly deliver that fun for a lot of people. Switzerland is chasing the rare person with both high budget in their bank account and an unbridled sense of play in their hearts.
Casio makes cool gadgets that happen to be watches, in an industry where “gadget” is a bad word because only nerds like gadgets. I’m a nerd and pretty proud of it, as are many other Casio watch lovers. Further, what I like the most is that Casio seems to be populated by nerds at most levels. This isn’t the case especially at many European watch brands that clearly need to hire a few nerds when it comes to product development – and only let them out for special occasions when they need to speak to media like me. I’m being a bit facetious, yes, but this discussion is really about helping me to discover why Casio has a special place in my heart parallel to other watch brands, but clearly distinct. I’ll take this opportunity again to thank Mr. Moriai (and the translator) for putting up with so, so many of my questions.
Modern Japan and today’s technology are only part of what inspires the design of Casio watches. Traditional Japanese crafts do as well. Perhaps not always in form (although the Tsuiki “Hammer Tone” limited edition MR-G G-Shock watch with its pounded titanium surfaces is clearly about celebrating traditional craft) but in mentality. That mentality is one of pursuing absolute perfection and strength in the rendering of tools.
Speaking of nerding-out, traditional Japanese crafts, and living childhood dreams, the highlight of my time in Tokyo with Mr. Moriai was visiting a secluded little store called Sokendo on a side street in Shibuya that was incredibly easy to miss. Inside this rare place were traditional Japanese katana blades for sale, including both new and antique ones that ranged to almost a 1,000 years old.
Deep respect was necessary in visiting this store where the owner was a serious man who was clearly passionate about swords in the same way I am about watches. In Japan, a traditional katana is considered a national treasure and it isn’t even legal to own one or take it out of the country without government approval. A modern katana costs about $30,000 – $50,000 but historic ones can get much more expensive. The store owner of the little shop named So-Ken-Do said the new stuff was OK, but really didn’t match the quality of the vintage stuff that was made with so much more care.
He explained a tragedy that he felt was worth sharing and that was the taking and destruction of many Japanese swords right after WWII. He explained that American General MacArthur made it illegal to own any of the blades as he felt they contributed a “fighting” spirit among the people. Many swords were taken by soldiers out of the country or just thrown into Tokyo Bay – clearly a sad story. The owner of the store said that he made many personal trips to America in order to recover the dangerous blades, which must be taken care of properly in order to maintain the metal which can tarnish.
Eventually, the rules set forth by the American military were changed when it was realized that the katana was valued as art and part of the country’s heritage – and no longer used as a weapon. Though I have to say – what an incredible weapon it makes. Holding one in the hand is remarkable, and you immediate have a deep sense of respect for the object, its maker, and its country of origin. This was the first such experience for me in a katana store (even though several years back when Seiko originally introduced the Ananta I did visit the workshop of someone who makes them today), and also the first for Mr. Moriai. It was really special to enjoy this experience together with him in Tokyo – I could tell he was getting inspired for a future G-Shock watch…
No experience like spending an afternoon hanging out in Tokyo with a guy who makes some of my favorite watches is complete without buying one. Also with me on the trip from the United States was another long-time G-Shock lover, Adam Craniotes. In the watch community, he runs Red Bar which facilitates in-person meetings for small watch lover groups in various cities. He and I needed to satiate our love of G-Shock by getting interesting models that we couldn’t get elsewhere. For me, it was a pink G-Shock Rangeman; and for him, it was getting a jumbo-sized G-Shock 5600XL. After seeing where G-Shock watches come from and getting to know the people who make them, we have a new and enhanced relationship with the brand.
Having the opportunity to get close to the people who make the watches I like is a unique benefit of what I do, and when it happens with a brand that has so impacted my life, as well as others, then I’m further humbled by the notion of what something as simple as a cool watch can mean to people all over the world.