Take a walk with us through the city’s Harajuku district of the Shibuya ward with Casio’s head of design Ryusuke Moriai to learn about how city inspires his watch designs
Tokyo is a big city. Really big. It’s so big, in fact, that it’s not a actually a city at all, but rather a “metropolitan prefecture”, comprised of twenty-three wards, each of which is governed as a separate city in its own right.In turn, these wards are comprised of distinct districts that have their own unique feel and flavor. The total population of all the wards combined exceeds fourteen million, and it together they make up largest metropolitan economy in the world.
Like we said, it’s a big city. (Ahem, “metropolitan prefecture.”)
As such, it goes without saying that Tokyo is ripe with the sort of varied influences that spark the creative juices. Indeed, Japanese culture– and that of Tokyo itself– looms large on the world fashion and design stage, and this can be seen as clearly on the runway as it can on the wrist.To this end, we spent the day walking through the Harajuku district of the Shibuya ward with Casio’s head of design, Ryusuke Moriai, to learn more about the city that inspires the designs of some of the most iconic watches in the world.
Moirai-san began his career with Casio in 1985, just two years after Kikuo Ibe created the first G-Shock. Over the course of the next three decades, he was responsible for some of the most famous Casios, including, but by no means limited to, the infamous F-91W and the DBC-600 calculator watch.
But it was with G-Shock that he was able to let his imagination run wild. He created some of the brand’s most timeless and interesting designs. When you take into account that G-Shock alone has sold more than 90 million watches since its inception, that’s really saying something. And yet Moriai-san remains one of the most unassuming and humble people you could ever hope to meet.
Our walk began in the Shibuya Ward on Cat Street in the hip Harajuku district, so named because of all the — you guessed it — cats, which used to populate the area. In recent times, Harajuku has become synonymous with cutting-edge Japanese fashion and pop culture. This is where Moriai-san has found inspiration for some of his more colorful designs.
The neighborhood is known for its numerous cafes, ubiquitous street vending machines and, of course, fashion boutiques. A veritable oasis of calm amid the neighboring thoroughfares, it still bustles with its own infectious energy. We stopped by a sticker store (these are very popular in Japan), a trendy fashion boutique, and yes, even a watch store that sold G-Shocks.That last one was a bit of an eye-opener for Moriai-san, of all people, if for no other reason than because of his aforementioned modest nature. To wit, as he was pointing out some of the G-Shock models that he personally designed, I noted to the staff that here, before them was none other than G-Shock royalty. Thus, before Moriai-san could dissuade them, people were standing in line to take his photo.
After we extricated ourselves from the adoring mob, we moved over to Harajuku’s Ground Zero, which is located at Takeshita Street. Here, the crowd swells to almost Times Square proportions, with the crush of Japanese teens, hipsters, goth “Lolitas” and tourists moving back and forth like the tide. The shops are one on top of the other, each fighting for your attention with bright colors and even brighter lights.
It’s within this swirl of glitz, glam and outright flash that Moriai envisioned the blending of color and shapes that would come to define the now-famous “Crazy Colors” line of G-Shocks, the most notable of which uses his widely successful GA-110 model as a canvas. True, bright colors have been used previously for G-Shock, but this was usually in the service of practical concerns, like high visibility for first responders or for random limited editions and collaborations. This time around, it was purely for fashion, yet, as with all G-Shocks, the basic foundation of extreme durability under all conditions has been maintained.
This juxtaposition of whimsy and functionality resonated with both the collector community and the corporate halls of Casio alike, and influenced many of the brand’s design directions going forward. (Ironically, the wildly successful monochromatic “Basic Black” series can also trace its origins to the bright colors of Harajuku.)
Of course, there’s only so much of the visual and auditory cacophony of Harajuku that the casual tourist can take, and so it was that Moriai-san gently steered us off Takeshita Street, and led us further into the residential neighborhood that surrounds the district. Soon, the hustle and bustle and sheer commercialism gave way to quiet streets and private homes, and it was at the end of one such street that we came across an unnamed shop with a humble facade that traded not in fashion or watches, but rather ancient samurai swords.
To say that the samurai sword occupies a place of special reverence in Japanese culture is to grossly understate the obvious. Not only is the samurai sword, or katana, a formidable weapon, it’s an art form unto itself, with swords handed down from generation to generation. During the American occupation led by General MacArthur, innumerable swords were destroyed thanks to MacArthur’s belief that its symbolism led to martial thoughts and actions.Many were dumped unceremoniously in Tokyo Bay until his aide, a keen observer and fan of Japanese culture, convinced the general of their artistic value, and the practice was ended.
Fortunately, during this time of drastic change, many families took to burying their ancestor’s swords, thus preserving many of these treasures.
This leads us back to this singular shop.
The swords inside ranged in age from 700 years old to present day, and many were priceless by any meaningful standard. So, how does a centuries-old sword relate to a G-Shock? For Moriai, the answer exists on many levels. From the fine craftsmanship seen in the forging of the blades or the intricate design of the hilts, to the preciseness of their cutting edges, their analog can be seen in the latest MR-Gs, a line of watches that move G-Shock confidently into the realm of luxury goods.
While the use of steel and titanium in the MR-Gs is an obvious connection to the Japanese katana, less so is the hand polishing, which allows for a mirror finish and razor sharp bezels. And then there’s the overall design of the MR-G itself, which employs a much more angular language than its resin stable mates. (Fun fact: Moriai-san’s personal watch is an MR-G.)
A quick cab ride across town took us to a well-known store that specializes in Japanese art and heritage. On display were numerous examples of the metalworking art referred to as Tsuiki, which Moriai-san ingeniously incorporated into the design of a limited edition MR-G.
Tsuiki is a generations-old art that involves hand hammering and tempering of steel to provide it with a unique look and texture. With the MR-G “Hammertone,” G-Shock and Moriai-san enlisted the help of a traditional Tsuiki metalworker to create 300 watches with hand-embellished bezels and bracelets.The artist had never worked with titanium before and actually had to create special shock-absorbing hammers to allow him to work with the metal without thoroughly numbing his hands.G-Shock hammers, if you will.
At this point in our Tokyo tour Moriai-san left us to return to Casio HQ. But he left us with a profound appreciation for the creativity and effort that go into making the “strongest watches in the world.” First and foremost, a G-Shock is a near-indestructible timepiece designed to be a stalwart companion under the most trying of physical conditions. But it can also be a perfect complement to one’s style or mood; neither quality negates the other, and therein lies its genius.On the one hand, it’s a commodity prized for its durability, and on the other, a design totem that’s collected and revered by a zealous community of fans.
Coming up in the next issue of About Time, we’ll take an in-depth look at Casio’s Hamura Research and Development facility and the famed Yamagata production factory, where G-Shocks are tested and produced. While our tour of these manufacturing facilities was illuminating, in many ways this tour of Tokyo with an unassuming, bespectacled Ryusuke Moriai was perhaps the most insightful and surprising aspect of this legendary brand.
Adam Craniotes is the co-founder of RedBar and collects G-Shocks at his home in New York City.
"A G-Shock is a near-indestructible timepiece designed to be a stalwart companion under the most trying of physical conditions."