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Seiko's rural luxury watchmaker: Made in Japan to 0.01 of a millimeter

Luxury mechanical watches from the Grand Seiko brand are seen at Morioka Seiko Instruments Inc. in Shizukuishi, Iwate Prefecture, on April 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Ikuko Ando)

MORIOKA -- While Switzerland might be famous for its upmarket mechanical watches, this small town in north Japan boasts a luxury watch manufacturer to stand among the very best; one of its highly skilled artisans can even adjust a watch within 0.01 millimeter of distortion.

    The enduringly popular Morioka Seiko Instruments Inc., based in the town of Shizukuishi, aims to turn its home region into a "sacred place" for mechanical watches. At its factory, surrounded by the natural splendor found at the base of Mount Iwate, craftspeople bring together tiny parts to create the Grand Seiko brand's sophisticated luxury mechanical watches.

    Morioka Seiko Instruments Inc.'s cleanroom where watchmakers work is seen in Shizukuishi, Iwate Prefecture, on April 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Ikuko Ando)

    The heart of a watch is its movement, the about 3 centimeters in diameter mechanism consisting of more than 200 parts. Company Vice President Yukinori Kato, 62, proudly said, "There are only a few companies around the world that take on the entire process from designing and making parts, assembling movements, final inspections to shipping."

    At the back of the factory sits a studio with a roof sloping toward Mount Iwate. Completed in July 2020, the studio was designed by architect Kengo Kuma, who was also behind the Japan National Stadium. Among its provisions are a cleanroom for parts assembly, a display corner where visitors can learn about the structure of mechanical watches, and a retail space to try on and buy watches.

    The working tables lined up between the immaculate white walls and pillars of the cleanroom are specially made using traditional Iwate Prefecture furniture using techniques called the Iwayado Tansu drawers. Through glass separating the factory tour route from the cleanroom, Tsutomu Ito, 48, a modern master craftsperson, was seen at a working table.

    Ito is a highly skilled artisan in charge of adjusting the hairspring, an especially important part in the movement. Using tweezers, he adjusts distortions in units of 0.01 millimeters. Company President Yoshiaki Hayashi, 62, is full of admiration for his skills, saying: "He seems to be able to see distortion our eyes cannot."

    Currently, public factory tours are suspended to prevent coronavirus infections, but the company plans to resume tours by reservation in the near future. Hayashi said, "I want many people to know about the world-class watches manufactured in Shizukuishi, and to make this place hallowed ground for mechanical watches."

    (Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Morioka Bureau)

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