Spotlight Interview With A Japanese Vintage Watch Collector – Youki Moriwaki

By Jimmy Lam (@tokeitime)

There’s copious amounts of articles and blog posts about watch collecting from Western societies. But how about those from the East? Japan has long since been master craftsmen/women and collectors of almost anything. However, watch collecting may not be viewed similarly as it is in the West. Many view wearing a watch as being a fashion statement or a status symbol. And according to our guest, may be an ageing hobby. For his first ever article, new Mr Zaratsu team member Jimmy Lam (@tokeitime), conducts an interview with Youki Moriwaki (@the_medallion_stallion), a humble and knowledgeable Japanese vintage watch collector, to learn about Japanese watch collecting culture, and uncover an insight into Grand Seiko that hasn’t been heard before (well outside of Japan anyway).

Jimmy first met Youki via Instagram, followed by a trip to Japan for his wife’s birthday (yes, it somehow became watch related, whoops…) Over some sake and ramen, they spoke for hours about watches and the Japanese watch culture. Jimmy left Japan with a 62GS, a new friend and an even deeper appreciation for Japanese timepieces. Read on to find out more!

Hey Youki, thank you for agreeing to be a part of the Spotlight interviews. Could you give our readers an insight into who you are and where you're from?

Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure being part of this series. My name is Youki and I go by @the_medallion_stallion on Instagram which I started about a year ago. I was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan which is a city right next to Tokyo. I’ve been collecting vintage watches for about 9 years now.

The wristwatch is still going strong and available at large in Japan, especially with the many amazing JDM pieces the rest of the world lusts for. Could you tell us what Japanese watch culture is like?

As you may know, the watch collecting culture has been very strong in Japan for decades. I didn’t start collecting until around 2010 so I can’t speak about how it was “back in the day”, but I’ve been told by my senpai (Japanese for experienced bro) collectors that the 90s were the golden age of collecting (focus being mostly on Rolex). Japanese watch journalism at that point in time was at its peak with many publications going into the most minute details of various sports model references. Some of these old magazines are revered like the Bible and is still considered very relevant and educational (even by Western collectors). I guess that is one of the differentiating aspects of the Japanese collector community - many have an obsession for the smallest of details and the knowledge that some of these experienced dealers and collectors have is top notch.

As for the watch community, like in any country, watch collecting here is a very niche hobby and there are collectors who specialise in different brands, time periods, or genre (e.g. military watches or even steel bracelets). This is just my personal observation, but just like how Japanese society as a whole is an ageing population, I feel like the watch collecting community here is also rapidly ageing. I just don’t see many young enthusiasts these days and I feel that many of the younger collectors only see watches as a status symbol or a fashion statement. For example, similar to the west, the AP Royal Oak or a Rolex sports model is a popular choice for the successful salary man. On any given day, if you hop on a packed early morning train in Tokyo, you’ll mostly likely see a good amount of Rolex. On the other hand, I very rarely see anyone wear a Grand Seiko (GS). Generally speaking, I’d say GS is one of the most unpopular brands out here. Why? I think part of that can be attributed to the brand’s image being damaged during the early 2010s when their workers union sued the company and the public became aware that the company had been grossly mismanaged for decades. It was a scandalous affair which really tarnished the brand domestically.

Going back to Japan’s collector community though, I’ve been involved in the Japan domestic watch collecting community for a few years, so perhaps I can share how the dealers and collectors here interact.

In Tokyo, there are about 30 collector/dealers who are at the core of the Japan domestic watch community and regularly host gatherings. One of the most well-known biweekly markets here is the FMWV which has been going on for over 15 years now and currently run by a dealer whose Instagram handle is @tasmoki. This market is not advertised on the internet so it’s pretty tough to join unless you know someone. Many of the dealers who attend are travelling dealers who attend these types of gatherings all over Japan (held in cities like Kobe, Osaka and Hiroshima). The highlight of the gathering is the live auction bidding where dealers throw in new treasure finds. I’ve seen incredible pieces during these auctions from an all original Seiko “timekeeper” pocket watch in immaculate condition to a WWII Seiko pilot watch to an unworn Lord Marvel 36000 hi-beat prototype. In the Tokyo/Kanagawa area there is also another well-known quarterly vintage watch fair (which hosts not just domestic but foreign brand dealers too) called the JWTG which is run by my good friend Sugai. Sugai is one of few rare young dealers and a true watch aficionado that knows his craft. He also has an Instagram account, @the_alltime, so give him a follow!

It's clear that you have have a deep appreciation for vintage, in particular with Grand Seiko, can you give our readers some insight into why and what draws you to these?

I got into Grand Seiko in a rather strange way and I’m happy that I can share this. I work in finance and as I entered my 30s and started to join more management meetings which often at times were extremely boring, the one thing I started to do was observe the watches that my senior managers wore. One of my mentors wore a Nomos Tangente and I grew to love the brand which I was able to acquire from your buddy Daniel (@mrgrandseiko) via a trade!

Anyway, the watch that sparked my interest the most in these meetings was a vintage Grand Seiko reference 4522-8000 worn by a manager I really admired (he was not Japanese ironically). This was in 2013. At that time, I was already collecting vintage watches but didn’t really know the history of Grand Seiko or any of the Japanese domestic brands for that matter. After I found out the model that my manager was wearing, I researched the hell out of Seiko and that’s where the love for the brand started.

As much as I love the history of Grand Seiko, I have tremendous respect and admiration for Kintaro Hattori, the founder of Seiko. He ventured out into the watch import business when he was just 21 years old and was way ahead of his time. His forward thinking approach is really amazing - so legendary that there are numerous business books devoted to his business philosophy. For instance, it may sound unthinkable now but in the 1880s when Hattori started his company, it was common practice in Japan to pay for goods and services with a one-month delay. Hattori made sure that he always paid for his watches in a timely manner and even made advanced payments which allowed him to gain the trust from foreign watch companies (who would eventually directly trade with him instead of going through the obligatory foreign broker). He quickly became the top watch import dealer in Japan and he even had the foresight to build the now iconic watch tower in the 4th district of Ginza (which would later set the world record for the most expensive plot of land in the world during the real estate bubble of the late 1980s). Soon after becoming the top importer, Hattori established the Seikosha factory and set out to achieve what he originally envisioned his company to be - Japan’s first completely vertically integrated domestic watchmaker. One of my favorite quotes from him is, “All merchants should strive to be one step ahead of your competitors. But you have to be careful not to be too many steps ahead, else people will think of you as a fortune teller. A merchant should never strive to be a fortune teller.”

Going back to Grand Seiko, I feel like GS embodies the spirit of Kintaro Hattori’s forward thinking approach. From the development of the hi-beat movement to the invention of the spring drive - the DNA of Hattori’s philosophy is truly embedded in GS’s rich history. My favorite time period in Grand Seiko history is in the 1960s when the Kameido and Suwa factory were in direct competition. This eventually led to the development of the hi-beat movement and Seiko upstaging its rivals in Swiss chronometer competitions.

In the future, I’m hoping to do some local research here in Tokyo on the Kameido factory which of course is where all the watches for Daini Seikosha were assembled. Many people associate Grand Seiko with Nagano and Iwate since the museums and watch making facilities are presently located there, but Seiko is originally a Tokyo based company and has a rich history in Tokyo - particularly in the present day Sumidaku and Kotoku area. A lot of this history has been lost unfortunately due to the closure of the factories, mass layoffs, and aforementioned mismanagement of the company. One day I’m hoping I can meet some of the retired craftsmen who can recount the glory days of Seiko.

Outside of watches, do you have any other passions?

Outside of watches, my other passion is running. I used to run mid to long distance competitively from high school into my 20s, so it was a big passion for me before watch collecting. Because of this, I actually have a nice collection of vintage Garmin running and triathlon digital watches! Unfortunately, they are collecting dust now since I have small kids but I’m hoping to race again in the future for fun!

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