For close to thirteen years, Haruo Suekichi has been investing hours upon hours every day to develop watches with a Steampunk flair. Reminiscent of Jules Verne and influenced by manga, his finely crafted watches are of a vintage futuristic kind. And what started with an unsuccessful attempt to hawk them at a flea market has turned into an enterprise whose analogue objects of desire are hard to get. PingMag had a chance to sit down with Tokyo’s very own Steampunk poster boy in his studio in Yoyogi Uehara.
How did your interest in watches start?
When I was 18, I moved from Aomori to work at a printing company. But after I started getting back pain, I quit and started to work in a wholesale store for toys and general goods in Asakusa, Tokyo. One of their clients was a watch shop and I saw many of their watches over my time there. That’s how my interest developed. Also, at that time, my girlfriend was really interested in watches and what was going on with the scene in Koenji and along the Chuo line, she was into hanging out in this area. She was the kind of girl that liked the things that men were usually interested in, like knives, watches, cars and she ended up showing me catalogues of Swiss watches.
Meaning it wasn’t a family thing?
My parents were born early in the Showa era, which was a time when people couldn’t afford to own many things. So they made daily products for themselves. My father worked as an electric engineer and my mother was a knitting instructor and painter. I was the best at carved block printing in school when I was living in Sendai. My kindergarten was special and, being a bit rural, emphasised crafts. We learned to make ships out of scrap wood with hammers, nails and saws in addition to other clay figures. So I had a background of craft since kindergarten — I’d say it’s the root of my career.
Actually I haven’t seen Ghibli movies that much. I only saw the part of Lupin, which is produced by Hayao Miyazaki. And I didn’t like robot cartoons, I preferred Dokonjyo Gaeru and Ganba no Dai Bouken. I liked more chivalrous cartoons like Inakappe Taisho and Samurai Giants. I watched these all the time but it’s not connected to my work so much. Among sci-fi animations, I liked Galaxy Express 999, by Reiji Matsumoto. My father worked for National Railways and it was the only comic he bought for me.
This helps explain a bit more about the visuals in your work…
I’d say so. In the comic, many devices and gauges are drawn and I guess they inspired the dial faces of my watches. Actually, author Reiji Matsumoto likes the Swiss watch brand Breitling. And my ex-girlfriend showed me a Breitling watch in a magazine before, and I thought “wow” it’s so awesome! I wanted to make a watch just like it. Then I bought one for ¥450,000 ($4,200) on lay away. But on the day I sold the first watch I had made myself on the flea market, I lost the Breitling… Ever since then, I swore to make my own watches and never spend so much on a watch again! I forced myself to think that way. And I started to move on my career and that’s how I got to be where I am today.
So it all started at the flea market thirteen years ago?
I was making watches just for fun as a hobby first. And I exhibited my watches at a competition at a gallery in Shibuya with many other creators. But nobody wanted to buy my watches. I also brought them to a department store in Kichijoji, but they didn’t want them either. I worried about needing cash to pay for materials and had to sell my watches at a flea market in Nakano. I didn’t want to but it wouldn’t help. I priced ¥3,000 ($28) for each, but first no customer stopped by. Finally, a Korean woman in the next booth gave advice I should say Irashaimase (Hello, welcome). Eventually people started coming and I was at the flea market every week.
And how many watches have you made since then?
In total, I think about 6,000 to 7,000. When I used ready-made parts, I made a lot. But since seven years, I’ve been making all the parts myself, so the number has decreased a bit.
Concentration at work.
6,000?! Can you remember what your first one was?
My first one was more like a conventional watch. I just bought a nylon strap and attached it to the watch face.
As simple as that. Tell us more about your visual influence.
At first I wasn’t aware but when I just began making watches, Swatch started booming. People had been satisfied with only one watch till then, but a new culture came and took root in Japan where people changed their watches depending on fashion and the mood they were in. So if you have a party today, it’s nice to wear a watch that lets a firework cracker burst rather than an ordinary watch. Or if you drink at a bar with some girl, it’s best to choose a watch showing the wrong time intentionally. Because if the girl asks you about the time, you can answer it’s still 11 p.m., but actually it’s already 1 and she’s missed the last train. Then you can go to another bar with her. [Laughs]
You’re quite a story teller, Suekichi! We take it every watch has a story behind it?
Yes, for example, I made a watch for a guy with only one arm who couldn’t wear a watch at all before. When you slid in your arm, the watch on the arm snaps closed by itself. From that experience, I realised a watch can be any shape and it just opened up so many creative possibilities. I’m so spontaneous that whenever I think of something, every watch has an impulse behind it. The idea comes to me and I end up just forgetting about it because I’ve made so many.
For example, where did you get the idea for the energy drink watch? [pictured further above]
That came from UltraMan: When he transforms, he uses a capsule. Equally, we get energy when we drink Lipovitan D. So I thought of a setting in a bottle of Lipovitan D and we can snap it out and drink to change like a hero does. So I made a watch from such an idea.
And what would be the most important thing in making a watch?
The dial faces. I carve the numbers on them by hand, but I’m not that skilled and I put a lot of time into them. To carve one face takes about 30 minutes. But if I carve six, I don’t have enough patience and take a nap for two hours or so. So the face takes the longest. If a customer requests to write numbers in Chinese characters, I can change them like this. I can also hit the plate and make a number relief.
Do you make a lot of mistakes when making watches?
When I notice I made a mistake, I try not to consider it one because I don’t want to waste the effort I’ve put in to that point. So I adapt it to my intentions. When I make a mistake in a very basic calculation, or when the whole effort would be wasted, I shout. I make clock hands as well now, and first I think about some possible ways and I try many times — but it doesn’t go well, doesn’t move well or overloads the moving part. And I’m working analogue so it cannot be changed digitally. So I have to learn by my feel. I cannot tell like shaving 0.3 millimetre is enough but I have to try and adjust it in every case. So till I learn the feel, I have to try and try and make mistakes so many times. Gradually it becomes stressful work, finally I shout and struggle. When I get angry, I sing. I have an echo microphone.
Your watches really echo this antiqueness…
I didn’t have skills before, so my watches looked old fashioned. Also, I use brass and leather as basic materials. The older brass gets, the darker it becomes, making the watches look antique. Technically, brass is easy to shape, melt and meld. It’s durable and it doesn’t rust easily. I personally like brass and keep using it.
Nice! Compared to lots of watch designers who are using modern stuff like LED…
Well, I just cannot catch up with technology. I know I can listen to music on an iPod, but, actually, the other day I bought a new radio cassette player! I still record on tape. I’m that kind of person.
I also always liked taking things apart to see what’s actually inside the mechanism, I admire it. These days, nano technology is just too small for my hands! If I really want to understand what is inside a high-tech piece, I need to have some deeper knowledge of electronics and I’m not smart enough for that! I’m just more interested in analogue systems. For a really simple example, I can understand that the wheels of a bike move because of the pedalling. Myself and my watches are often misunderstood because I get categorised as an artist and I have many artist friends — but I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I just make and create stuff and really enjoy the making process.
So that’s the secret to your success?! How do you maintain your reputation — do you feel pressure to maintain your own standard?
You asked this question at the right moment. A while ago, I was talking with my shop manager and told him I cannot continue to make watches like these anymore! Probably people expect very complicated and masculine watches with some interesting tricks. However, when I make more and more and my skills improve, the making becomes simpler. I think the process is easier but I can’t feel any achievement. Maybe I have already tried everything. So as a next step, maybe I can make a trick or a gimmick how to display time. I know I should satisfy my customers’ expectations and stay creative.
Haruo Suekichi, the watchmaker!
Great and what’s coming next?
I’ve been making fountain pens for fun! I just started making them a couple of months ago. And I brought those pens to a man who does calligraphy and I asked him to check their writing condition. He said “No! No, again!” for all the pens I brought. Only one pen was considered good enough to write with. He ordered me to draw a circle with this pen, and he said if I cannot draw a circle smoothly, I cannot even called it a pen. If he told me “No” even for this pen, I would jump in front of the Inokashira line! I got disappointed, then I tried harder. So, this is the first one I made, an ink absorbing pen. Because when you are writing a letter, you would have to soak it in ink every time.
Thanks for your precious time Suekichi-san! Though you can’t visit the master’s atelier shop in Yoyogi Uehara anymore, there are a couple of other shops in Tokyo to get one of his awesome watches yourself:
1) Shimokitazawa Tabatha
2-13-13 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo.
2) Seiyo Hyakkaten
2-25-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo.