Are Japanese watches better than Swiss watches?

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It’s a question that I see popping up on Google and watch forums all the time, and it’s easy to answer: no! Japanese watches are not better than Swiss watches, just like Swiss watches are not better than Japanese watches. It’s like asking if Boeing is better than Airbus or Mercedes than Lexus. There are way too many variables at play to claim that one is better than the other. In reality, the question is not if one or the other is better. The questions to ask are: what are the differences between Japanese and Swiss watches? Where do these differences come from, and why would you choose one over the other? In the end, a watch is a personal thing, and you shouldn’t worry too much about its origins. The most important thing is that you enjoy wearing it, be it Swiss, Japanese, German, British or whatever. Having said all that, Japan vs. Switzerland still seems to an interesting topic to explore because it continues to stir the horological interwebs, putting people in either one or the other camp. Therefore I’ll try to clear things up a bit in today’s post. We’ll be looking at the Japanese and Swiss watch industries from a bird’s eye view, blending in some cultural and societal aspects and try to find the differences and similarities. By the end of this post, you’ll be entirely up to date on the Japan vs. Switzerland topic, and you’ll appreciate watches from both countries for what they have to offer. 

The Japanese watch vs. the Swiss Watch Industry 

If we want to get a better insight into the differences and similarities between Swiss and Japanese watches, we have to know how the general industrial production systems in both countries operate. They are quite the opposite of each other. 

Japan

In Japan, innovations in science and technology are mostly a result of big, privately owned corporations competing with each other to bring the latest technologies to the market. A good example is solar watch technology. Citizen, the largest Japanese watch manufacturer in the world, developed this technology in the mid-1970s. The idea behind it was that regular quartz watches were lacking in functionality, in that they had relatively short battery life. Furthermore, there weren’t many places where you could replace batteries since quartz watches were still a novelty. Citizen tackled this problem by releasing the world’s first light-powered watch (Eco-Drive) in 1976. Not long after that, in 1977, the Seiko watch corporation introduced their first solar-powered watch as a direct answer to Citizen. Until this day, Citizen and Seiko are still competing with each other on the global market. Amongst others, this has led to the development of the thinnest solar watch ever, the Eco-Drive One by Citizen. This watch is only 2.98 mm thick! Other innovations from Japanese watch manufacturers are the G-Shock by Casio, and Kinetic watches by Seiko, which have a self-winding quartz timekeeping mechanism. Pretty innovative stuff if you ask me!

All in all, the innovations from Japanese watch manufacturers are the result of the “freedom” they get from the Japanese central government. There is hardly any governmental regulation when it comes to R&D and innovation. If you combine that with huge Research and Development budgets and in-house training programs where they train their engineers, you understand why companies like Citizen and Seiko can respond to market demand quickly. This is not only the case in the watch industry but also in electronics and IT. 

Switzerland 

As I mentioned earlier, the situation in Switzerland is quite the opposite of Japan. The Swiss watchmaking tradition is rooted in a long history of making precision instruments. The watchmaking tradition goes back as far as the 16th century, and for nearly two centuries, Swiss watch manufacturing has dominated the global market. This was especially the case in the pre-quartz era (until roughly 1975). Swiss watches are often considered pieces of art rather than useful everyday commodities that many people can afford. This is especially the case with brands like Patek Philippe or Jaeger Le Coutre. Watches from these brands often cost more than a nice family car and take months to build by hand, by highly specialized watch technicians. This is, of course, not the case for all Swiss watches (read my post on Swatch watches here). Generally speaking though, Swiss watches, mainly mechanical ones, are in a different league than their Japanese competitors. Although the Japanese also have a history with mechanical watches (Seiko 5, Orient, Citizen, and Miyota), it’s not as refined as Swiss technology and precision.  

When it comes to the organization of production, Switzerland has always been less focused on competition between local watch manufacturers because many of the manufacturers (still) are small independent companies, producing for smaller (niche) markets. The Swiss boutique watch manufacturers release less new watches and work with fewer employees than their Japanese competitors. The organization in Swiss politics and society means that Swiss boutique watch manufacturers are mostly not in a position where they are aggressively competing on a global market. They don’t have to, as their products are so unique and sought after by smaller market segments. The exception being the Swatch Group who sell millions of watches every year. The difference between Swatch and the boutique brands is that Swatch focuses on a global mass market of consumers, very much in line with the big Japanese players. 

Now that we know a bit more about Japanese vs. Swiss watches, I would like to answer some more common questions about Swiss and Japanese watches, before we move on the conclusion. 

What does Japan MOVT mean on a watch?

“MOVT” stands for movement. It merely means that the movement inside the watch is made in Japan. That’s it. 

Which is the best Japanese watch brand?

It depends on what you’re looking for! Do you need a mechanical watch or quartz? As with most products from Japan, they are usually very high quality and will last for years. 

Are Japanese watches good?

I have no problem recommending ALL Japanese watch brands. The differences are in the design, not in the quality. Some brands that I recommend for quartz watches are Citizen and Seiko. I have been wearing them for years, and not a single one ever failed on me. Besides that, they offer outstanding value for money. 

Japanese watches Brand list 

Here’s a list of the most well known 4 Japanese watch manufacturers. 

  1. Seiko
  2. Citizen
  3. Casio
  4. Orient

Which is the best Japanese watch brand?

Like I said earlier, I can recommend all of them. Seiko, Citizen, Casio. All outstanding quality. Just pick the one you like best. In my case, that’s Citizen, but you can’t go wrong with any of these brands. 

What is the best value Swiss watch?

For the best value Swiss watches, I would go with a brand that belongs to the Swatch group, like Tissot, Hamilton, Certina, or Swatch. All these brands offer excellent value for money in both the quartz and mechanical department. Did you know Swatch also makes mechanical watches? In terms of price, Swiss watches are usually more expensive than Japanese watches. 

Does that make them better than Japanese watches? I don’t think so. 

What is the cheapest Swiss watch brand?

The cheapest Swiss watch money can buy is Swatch. I’ve been wearing them for years, and they are my favorite watch brand ever! Prices start at around USD 60 for simple Swatch “Gent.” 

Is Tissot better than Seiko?

Don’t ask that question! 

Conclusion

I hope this post has been helpful to you. As you have read, there is no such thing as a “best watch.” There is not even a “Japan vs. Switzerland” competition, at least, not in my world :-)! 

As with many things in life, choosing a watch comes down to taste and personal preference. 

And why should it be more complicated anyway? 

Leon

I'm Leon. I write articles about small watches (usually 38 mm or less in diameter) because I like them. They look stylish and classy to me. Most of the watches on the market today are 40 mm or more, which I think is too big. This blog was born out of curiosity when I was shopping for a small watch myself and couldn't find the info that I needed.

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