Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Koku tetsu

The intention over the next few weeks is to introduce you to the fascinating world of Japanese Railroad pocket watches.  It’s a rather long story but we are not going to rush because such an approach would be disrespectful. 

The first step in understanding Japanese watchmaking is to travel back to the late 1800’s.  Unlike European countries who had already embraced fast industrialisation, Japan was still a feudal society.  The Emperor was regarded and respected as a rather important deity.  Preserving tradition was far more important than going full steam ahead.

In the early 1900’s “Made in Japan” was hardly something to be proud of but progress could not be stopped. Initially the industrialisation and modernisation relied heavily on imported know-how, precision machinery, down to measuring instruments.  Japan relied heavily on foreign support.  Yet thanks to hard work, discipline, Japanese mentality, and despite very little respect from the west, in only a few decades Japan managed to produce consumer goods which were in most cases as good as western at a significantly lower price.  And the Japanese watchmaking industry was no different: humble beginnings, insulation, self-sufficiency, hard work, and precision led to perfection.

The development of Railroad watches made in Japan was major proof of what a young industry was capable of.  As early as 1920 the import of Swiss and American pocket watches stopped and Seikosha (Seiko) became the primary supplier to the Japanese National Railways, which is still the case to this day. 

And this is where our story starts – with a century old Railroad timepiece which has undergone technological internal transformations but remains faithful to its roots.  Here is a photo of two Seiko Railroad watches: the first one from 1956 and the second from 1986.

While the first one is a manual wind mechanical watch and the second one is quartz battery operated, they are of the same size, the font on the dial is unchanged, and the size and shape of the hour and minute hands are identical – which brings us to the first point: consistency and tradition.

What makes a Japanese Railroad watch a Railroad watch? 

A Seiko pocket watch becomes a Railroad pocket watch once it is supplied to Railroad authorities and when it is assigned the official number.  In other words, only a small number of Seiko pocket watches are actually Railroad watches; the vast majority were sold to ordinary users.  Clearly as collectors our focus is on official issued watches.

Understanding and identifying markings on the case back

A. The 'Era' mark 

The first symbol is the Emperor's era mark:  Showa.  Michinomiya Hirohito reigned from 1926 to 1989. In Japan, reigning Emperors are known simply as "the Emperor" and he is now referred to primarily by his posthumous name, Shōwa or "Emperor Shōwa."

B. Year mark

The 'year one' of the Japanese calendar is the first year of the new Emperor's reign. In our case, the number 31 stands for the 31st year of Emperor Showa, which works out to be 1956.
C. Railway assigned number

4564 is the individual watch number assigned by the Railway Authority. 
D. Railway Authority

The first symbol is Koku and stands for "country".  The second is Tetsu and means "steel".  Combined they mean Japanese National Railway.  JNR was in charge of Japan's rail network from 1949-1987 (JR from 1988, JGR before 1948).  Seiko also issued watches to other privately owned Japanese railway lines as well. 

While I consider myself a novice student of railway horology, I have not come across any other National Rail authority which inscribed the issued watches with such exactness and strictness. 
How to wear a Japanese pocket watch? 

On a 'watch cord' or Sage himo.  Sage can be loosely translated as "wearing it around the neck" and "himo" is the cord. 

The Seiko himo follows the tradition of a samurai rope used in hand swords and other items.

Here is the original Seiko Sage himo.  Like the watch, it remains unchanged today.  As one would expect, Seiko even has a dedicated part number for Sage himo.


Clearly thanks to the meticulous and consistent dating, number and assignment system, a Seiko Railroad watch presents itself as an ideal target for watch collectors and enthusiasts.  Hunting down a piece of your birth year would be a thrill and this is precisely what my intention is: to make such pieces available to subscribers.

Currently I have in stock models from 1956, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1969, with a few other pieces undergoing restoration.  If you are looking for a particular year do let me know and I will contact you directly when such a piece becomes available.  

Next instalment in tomorrow's newsletter!

No comments: