But the similarities end there, and an exhausting journey, an eight-hour time difference and some serious jetlag later, it was a land rich in contrasts that greeted us. Japan has very much an insular mentality. Its society is highly structured, introverted and obeys precise rules. The country’s cultural wealth is reflected in its extreme refinement and a love of beautiful objects whose every detail must be perfect, with a meticulousness sometimes bordering on obsessive.
Big in Japan
Japan is a mature market for luxury in general and Fine Watches in particular. Japanese customers are enthusiasts, connoisseurs and avid buyers of European luxury brands and Swiss watches, as well as German and, of course, Japanese watches too. The local market tends towards low-end and mid-range products. Watches became widely available in Japan in the 1970s with the advent of quartz, spearheaded by Seiko and Citizen. These brands, which have a well-developed presence in Japan, also propose high-end mechanical watches, principally for the domestic market.
The Japanese economy has been ailing for a number of years, and Japanese society is torn between two sets of values. On the one hand the all-pervading rules and tradition, where years of service and respect for one’s employer prevail over personal interests and performance, and on the other a wealth of youth and innovation. This ambivalence leapt out at us as we explored Tokyo’s hippest districts, where women in traditional kimonos passed youths in extravagant, outlandish gear.
Japan must live with this duality, which almost certainly poses an obstacle to the country’s development. After hard-hitting recession (-25% to 35% in 2009) and with recovery slow to kick in, figures for the last quarter are at least stable, even suggesting a timid upturn. In Japan as in the rest of the world, the more established brands have come off best and the economic crisis has confirmed true values. The mid-range market is dwindling, losing sales to the entry level and very high-end segments.
On many levels, Japan’s watch market is similar to any other. Brands operate a dense network of stores. Big, beautiful Tokyo has a number of luxury shopping districts (Ginza, Omotesando, Roppongi) and as many general retail areas (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, etc). Watches are also sold at retail points of sale. However, what truly sets the Japanese watch market apart is the power of the department store (Matsukoshi, Takashimaya, Matsuzakaya, Isetan, etc.) where high-end brands are out in force. Their secret weapon is the gaisho, a senior sales associate who calls on customers in their homes. A gaisho can make up to half the department store’s sales. This is, as far as I know, a uniquely Japanese system and part of a highly evolved approach towards customer relations, also shared by jewellers and luggage makers, that harks back to an age when traders of all horizons would visit their patrons at the imperial courts.
The gaisho is yet another example of the crossover between tradition and modernity in this fascinating country which – and this could be why – opened up to the outside world just a century and a half ago.
The only way to try and understand Japan is to escape Tokyo and take the shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Once the imperial capital, Kyoto is a high seat of learning and history, with its innumerable sanctuaries, temples and gardens. The impression is one of stepping outside time into a magical, imaginary world of absolute beauty, where man and nature are in perfect, unquestionable unison. This is where the full measure of this rich and diverse country is most in evidence; a country of which we know or seek to know too little. So much of Japan remains to be discovered… next time.