Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Grand Day Out - Visiting the Minase Factory - Part 1

Courtesy of Minase
Inevitably, this is a story that is going to be personal.  As I've mentioned before, Japan was in many ways where my adult life began.  And it was 25 years ago that I first packed my bag and headed to Tokyo.  I will be 50 in July, so as you can imagine, this was a bit of "Bringing It All Back Home".

I left right after work on Friday night and took the subway out to Logan and caught my flight.  Ironically enough, it was via Swiss taking me first to Zurich, then connecting on to Tokyo (thank you for the very good deal on the airfare SWISS!).  And it made for some interesting conversations:

"What do you do?"

"I write about watches."

"Oh, that makes sense that you're going to Switzerland."

"Actually, I am on my way to Japan."

"Oh, so you're visiting Seiko!"



"No, I am visiting Minase, in Akita."

(insert puzzled expression here). 

So not to put things off, but I think it is important to get an idea of just where Minase is located.

(doko) = where?

Now while there are administrative offices in Chiba-ken (essentially the suburbs of Tokyo), the factory itself is a bit of a commute ; )

Shinkansen (that's bullet train to you)
After arriving at Narita airport (important travel tip, Narita is technically not in Tokyo, but in Chiba prefecture.  Sort of like Newark airport for New York).  From Narita you have a few options for getting into the city (ideally Tokyo station) so that you can then catch the first thing smoking (or in this case, humming) up north to Akita-ken.
Courtesy of Google
Now although the Shinkansen is fast, it is not "time travel" fast.  Generally, about 4 hours or so, give or take.  

And once you get to Akita station?  Well, you have about an hour's drive.  

What I'm getting at here, is that it would have been EASY for Minase to set-up shop in the Tokyo (or really any other big city such as Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima) suburbs.  But there were two very good reasons to put their factory (technically factories, but more on that later) in Akita.  The first one is obvious.  When Minase was created, the government was giving very strong encouragement and favorable terms to open businesses and create jobs in the area where Minase creates their watches - Yuzawa -

Downtown Yuzawa
But the second one is something that you can't really understand until you spend some time with the team at Minase -
And just what is (that's wa to you)?  Well this is challenging because literally translated, 和 means "Sum".  But when we take into consideration Japanese culture, and more importantly, company culture it can take on the meaning of "harmony".  So when I take these two definitions together, I tend to think that it means that harmony exists, and it is a positive thing for everyone involved.  When you visit the place where Minase makes their watches, you are pretty quickly aware of the differences between the "tone" or atmosphere of the place when compared to some of the factories you might encounter in Switzerland and Germany.  More on this as we go on, but suffice it to say, it is pleasantly different.  You will not hear shouting, you will not see pouting.  You get the very strong impression that everyone, from the person just starting out, to the long serving managers, are there because they actually want to be.  

Visit a Swiss watch factory and it's a 50/50 proposition that the watch maker will let you observe them, let alone photograph and ask questions about what they do.  At Minase?  They are eager and enthusiastic about what they do, how they do it, and perhaps most telling - why they do it.

Building A Better Mousetrap
Interesting to relate, Minase did not start out as a watch manufacturer.  Minase started out as a company that made cases and other components (OEM) for other Japanese companies.  But it actually started even earlier.  Because before they did that, they were known (and the other half of the company still is known) as Kyowa.  And just what does Kyowa make?  

Kyowa makes tools, specifically cutting tools.  Kyowa was founded in 1963 by Koichi Suzuki, the father of the current president, Tsuyoshi Suzuki -

Courtesy of Kyowa
The Kyowa side of the business is a REALLY impressive operation, and still going strong. 

And it is from this tool manufacturing that Minase really began.
From tool maker to OEM manufacturer, to a stand alone brand.
So we have a little background, stay tuned, I promise that the next installment will  have very high watch content ; )

A Grand Day Out - Part 2