The Seiko Museum Tells the Story of “A Step Ahead of the Times”
Rena Okauchi, PR Consulting Dentsu
Besides exhibiting the history of a company and its products, a corporate museum also introduces the appeal of the industry to which it belongs. The Seiko Museum Ginza gives a particularly strong impression of that. Visitors can glimpse the evolution of watches and clocks as a device for visualizing time and how it has evolved since humankind discovered the concept of time. In this article, we asked about the history of Seiko, which may be called the history of the Japanese watchmaking industry as made known by the Seiko Museum, and the significance of a museum that exhibits not only products but also “time”—something that the naked eye cannot see.
The Seiko Museum Ginza façade. Tree-lined silhouettes made of clock gears are on either side. On the right is a large pendulum clock, “Rondeau La Tour” (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
Overview of The Seiko Museum Ginza
The former Seiko Museum Ginza was established in 1981 as the Seiko Institute of Horology within the Seikosha factory in Taihei-cho, Sumida-ku, Tokyo, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Seiko’s founding. It initially focused on collecting and preserving information and conducting research, and its access had been limited to employees and business partners. In 2012, the museum was renamed the Seiko Museum and opened to the public to promote the Seiko brand.
To celebrate the 160th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kintaro Hattori (1860-1934), the museum was relocated to its founding location in Ginza.
The museum’s activities are well balanced, with more functions such as exhibitions, learning, and education. Under the jurisdiction of the Corporate Branding Department of the Seiko Group, the museum is staffed by a total of 14 people in the Museum Operations Department and the Archives Department. While the museum is conveniently located in Ginza, admission is free. This point strongly suggests Seiko’s intention to broaden the scope of the museum’s activities to make people aware of its existence, think about time, and appreciate the appeal of watches and clocks.
Museum Director Takashi Aizawa (L) and Deputy Director Noboru Miyadera (Photo taken by the writer)
Two changes brought about by the Ginza relocation
Ginza and Seiko have a deep connection. Ginza is the birthplace of Kintaro Hattori, the founder of Seiko, and K.Hattori (watch and clock retail and repair store), Seiko’s predecessor. Even today, flagship stores such as Grand Seiko Flagship Boutique Ginza in Ginza Wako department store and Seiko Dream Square stand near the museum, and it is no exaggeration to say that Ginza has been the base for the Seiko Group to send out information from the past to present.
According to the director, Mr. Aizawa, the move to Ginza brought about several good changes. First, the visitor base changed. Most visitors at the previous location had been limited to business partners and a few watch enthusiasts. However, the relocation to Ginza, a landmark location with convenient transportation for both domestic and overseas tourists, greatly increased the number of women and families, who had been a challenge to attract in the past despite being a target audience.
Second, synergy effects are generated between related facilities such as Seiko House Ginza and the flagship store. Customers who visit Seiko House Ginza and are interested in old watches visit the museum through referrals from store staff, while visitors who come to the museum to learn about Seiko’s history are led to the flagship store to purchase the latest products, resulting in people coming and going between the facilities. Museum Deputy Director Mr. Miyadera commented on the merits of the relocation to Ginza: “Our strength is that we can coherently disseminate information in the Ginza area. Getting the word out about a museum isn’t easy, but a virtuous circle has been created in various ways.
Appealing concepts that vary from floor to floor
Generally, when one thinks of a museum, one tends to imagine a low-rise building on a large site, but this museum utilizes the entire structure from the basement floor to the fifth floor. The disadvantage of the disruption of flow caused by moving from one floor to another is reversed, and each floor has a different design concept that gives visitors a distinct impression. Therefore, visitors can enjoy different images when they get off the elevator. The themes are Extreme Times on the basement floor, The Beginnings of Time on the first floor, Always One Step Ahead of the Rest on the second floor, From Time Indicated by Nature to Human-made Time on the third, Precise (Seiko) Time on the fourth, and A Variety of Times on the fifth floor. The museum has a total floor space of 654 square meters, with approximately 500 exhibits on display at any time.
Four-way combo of the floor design on each level. Clockwise from top left: the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
The Kintaro Hattori Room on the second floor, also important for employee training. The walls and carpeting effectively use Grand Blue Seiko, a special color that symbolizes the brand (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
One of the reasons for the museum’s existence is to pass on the spirit and footprints of the founder. The second floor, Always One Step Ahead of the Rest, symbolizes that significance. The exhibit focuses on Kintaro Hattori’s character, personality, and related anecdotes. The floor is also designed with internal branding in mind, and it is the first stop when new employee training sessions for group companies are held here. The reason for that is to ensure that the founding spirit, still passed down today, of always being a step ahead of the times is firmly etched in the minds of new employees. So, what kind of person was Kintaro Hattori, who founded the company?
Kintaro Hattori, a man who sought to always be a step ahead of the times
Seikosha founder Kintaro Hattori (circa 1897) (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
Hattori was born at the end of the Edo period in 1860 in what is Ginza 5-chome today. In 1881, at age 21, he founded K.Hattori. At the time, he was into wholesale and retailing timepieces imported from the West. He gained people’s trust by adopting the practice of collecting payments at a fixed time each month, which was still rare in Japan, and achieved business success by stocking many good products. But he really wanted to manufacture watches himself, and in 1892 he founded Seikosha with only a dozen employees. He began by assembling clocks and watches, studying by example, and succeeded in manufacturing a wall clock called the Bonbon Clock. Later, through encounters with excellent watchmakers, the company became capable of manufacturing large quantities of high-precision products and expanded its business.
He introduced Japan’s first alarm clock and wristwatch, the Laurel, and other goods, and greatly contributed to the popularization of clocks and watches. The business’s success was undoubtedly due not only to its high level of technology but also to the foresight and integrity of Hattori. This writer had a strong impression of that from the many anecdotes on display.
The quartz revolution that shocked the world
Precise (Seiko) Time on the fourth floor. The grids on the walls and ceiling become finer as visitors step further inside, expressing the enhancement of precision and technology. (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
“Seiko’s history is a struggle for precision,” says museum Director Aizawa. The fourth floor, called Precise (Seiko) Time, explains the history of Seiko from its 1881 founding to the development of the world’s first quartz wristwatch in 1969. Demand for watches accelerated as living standards became more affluent after Japan’s rapid economic growth. People wanted more precise watches, and Seiko’s pursuit of the highest precision became evident in manufacturing new components, design research, and other efforts. And in 1960, the Grand Seiko was born with all its component precision, assembly technology, and adjustment technology, based on an aspiration to create the highest-quality wristwatch the company could proudly present to the world. It was lauded as the best mechanical watch in the world.
Then, 1969 saw the launch of the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. The word quartz is the name of a mineral. Crystals are a transparent, and translucent form of quartz. When a certain voltage is applied, it vibrates with a precision far beyond that of conventional mechanical watches and dramatically improves accuracy. The advent of quartz sent shockwaves through the global watchmaking industry. As a result, Seiko became a world leader in both mechanical and quartz watches.
The company contributed to the worldwide spread of quartz by generously disclosing its patented technology, which is now used in various applications, including smartphones and personal computers. To mark such achievements, the museum received the globally prestigious Innovative Company Award (2002) and Milestone Award (2004) from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as well as winning recognition as a Mechanical Heritage (2014) from the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers. “We would also like to continue to convey that we have contributed to the industry in a wide range of areas through this museum,” Mr. Aizawa said on the significance of the museum’s existence.
(From left:) The Laurel (1913), Grand Seiko (1960), and Seiko Quartz Astron (1969), recognized as a Mechanical Heritage in 2014 (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
Tracing the transitions of time, clocks, and watches
Lastly, here is an introduction to the third floor, From Time Indicated by Nature to Human-made Time. This floor is regarded highly by watch and clock enthusiasts and history buffs, as visitors can learn about the origins of time and clocks. Around 5,000 B.C., the Egyptians created the sundial, considered the oldest clock known to humanity, followed by the water clock and combustion clock, which visualized time from natural phenomena. This floor offers an exhibit not only of clocks but also of the invisible concept of time. Visitors can get a first-hand look at the evolution of clocks and watches worldwide, from the iron-framed tower clock to the pendulum tower clock in the first half of the 16th century, as human hands improved their precision and developed them.
The third floor also displays one of Japan’s largest collections of Japanese traditional clocks, originally developed before the introduction of Western culture.
The third floor, From Time Indicated by Nature to Human-made Time. The lighting is dimmed compared to the other floors, creating a more dignified atmosphere. (Photo courtesy of The Seiko Museum Ginza)
Activities to convey the appeal of clocks and watches to children
As mentioned earlier, the museum also focuses on learning and education. “There is a strong image of clocks and watches as luxury items. It is a challenge for us that, particularly among children, there is less interest in clocks and watches,” Mr. Aizawa says. Indeed, the trend away from watches among young people is becoming apparent. With the advent of smartphones, many now carry neither wallets nor watches. With hopes to generate even the slightest interest in watches, the museum regularly holds several workshops for children.
One of the most popular programs offered is a workshop for children to experience watch and clock assembly. As parents and children can learn about the history and mechanism of clocks while assembling their original items, reservations are often filled within a few hours of the start of registration. Many comments are received from parents and children alike in participant questionnaires: “It has made me interested in watches,” “It has been a learning opportunity and a valuable experience with my child,” proving encouraging for operations staff.
Scene from a “Build a watch with your child” workshop (Photo taken by the writer)
Aiming to boost the value of the Seiko Brand
We asked the director and deputy director about the museum’s future initiatives. “We will continue to hold activities to enhance the value of the Seiko brand, including workshops to attract people who aren’t very interested in watches and clocks,” Deputy Director Miyadera said. At the same time, Mr. Aizawa shared the following aspirations: “Based on requests we have received from customers, we would like to expand the Grand Seiko exhibit and offer guided tours of the museum while keeping an eye on the COVID situation. Also, from the standpoint of internal branding, we would like to instill the spirit of our founder in all Group employees.” Through various initiatives, Seiko will continue to offer opportunities to consider the technological advancements it pursues and the diversifying value of time in the future.
A step ahead of the times, as communicated from Ginza to the world
Over many years, Seiko has greatly contributed to developing the Japanese watch industry. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of Seiko is the history of the Japanese watch industry. The company’s achievements in achieving world-class standards in mechanical and quartz watches can be traced to its corporate culture, in which the founder’s spirit to “always be one step ahead of the times” has been passed down from generation to generation. As a museum of time and watches, The Seiko Museum Ginza will continue to update its existence and serve as a place that conveys this corporate culture from Ginza to the rest of the world.