Brand story: How to be a geek god

Kikuo Ibe on the dream of G-Shock.

Esquire Malaysia Watch Guide - - Contents - Words by Grace Lai

AND YOU THOUGHT noth­ing could faze him? The man was on course to be­come a doc­tor. It was the ful­fil­ment of his child­hood dream to save the world, to do good and to heal, he says, one per­son at a time. Prac­tice surgery on a worm sealed his fate. He couldn’t do it. He found it nau­se­at­ing; unimag­in­able, slic­ing into an alive, wrig­gling be­ing. Life threw a curve­ball at Kikuo Ibe and he jumped on, hitch­ing a ride. At the end of its ec­cen­tric tra­jec­tory, he’d rolled up at Ca­sio, “a very small, but made-in-Ja­pan com­pany.”

Fast-for­ward five years: Ibe the Ca­sio en­gi­neer looks out the win­dow, watch­ing as a crew of con­struc­tion work­ers do their thing at the front of the of­fice build­ing. They wear match­ing uni­forms. But hey, a watch isn’t part of the get-up. In fact, they’re not wear­ing watches! Not a sin­gle man. This is a big deal: in Ja­pan, where time is ef­fi­ciency, re­spect, cour­tesy and the cal­i­bra­tor of an im­mac­u­late com­mu­nity, work­ers wear watches. Their de­nuded wrists are no mere cu­rios­ity; they are a mys­tery. Ibe, spark­ing into life, wants to crack it.

“I was re­ally puz­zled and asked them why. I found out that they all couldn’t wear watches. Not be­cause they didn’t want to, but be­cause the pres­sure, the ac­tive work and the con­stant drilling, dig­ging and climb­ing in and out of the man­hole were all too much for their watches [which] would ei­ther break, crack or just not be able to with­stand the pres­sure from the man­ual labour they car­ried out,” says Ibe. “So I de­cided to make a watch for these peo­ple.”

You can think of G-Shock as the horo­log­i­cal ver­sion of denim, and as uni­ver­sal in ap­peal. Like the blue-col­lar worker’s orig­i­nal work­ing out­fit, it can be worn to a fash­ion show and to a Ber­sih rally in the same day; G-Shock jives with both the ideas of haute cou­ture and the an­cient Greek demos. And, like denim, it is a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non (and not just a trend­ing topic) be­cause it wasn’t in­tended to be­come one; its au­then­tic­ity is rooted in its clear fit­ness for pur­pose.

It helps that it was de­signed by a gen­uine geek god who, at the time, had be­gun to kin­dle his di­vin­ity. By de­vot­ing him­self to his en­deav­our, Ibe’s “very, very hard work caused good luck.” The first work­ing pro­to­type Grav­ity-Shock watch was re­alised af­ter a ges­ta­tion pe­riod of just two years. Through­out, he had kept in mind the work­ing ev­ery­man, for whom a “strong watch” would be a boon in his daily roles as provider, col­league and friend.

By broad con­sen­sus, G-Shock is cur­rently the “tough­est” watch avail­able in re­tail. But “tough­ness” com­prises sev­eral com­ple­men­tary qual­i­ties that make up the whole, not merely hard­ness of skin ma­te­rial. In the un­der­stand­ing of east­ern cul­tures, “tough” also means the abil­ity to yield. Ibe ex­plains:

“At first, I couldn’t find the cor­rect ma­te­rial to pro­tect the watch I cre­ated from break­ing. I didn’t know how to make it tough and I nearly gave up. The so­lu­tion was re­ally a eu­reka move­ment and came from watch­ing a child bounc­ing a rub­ber ball. I saw that the rub­ber ex­pands ( edi­tor’s note:

en­gi­neers can do this) and shrinks to the grav­ity and bounc­ing, al­low­ing it to not burst or crack, and re­alised that all I had to do was float the watch engine in the cen­tre of the watch.” His so­lu­tion: five shock-ab­sorb­ing stops and a float­ing struc­ture with point-con­tacts, all cov­ered in a resin case.

IT WAS A NAT­U­RAL PRO­GRES­SION from there to match-make tech with the know-how of tra­di­tion. “There are many ar­ti­sanal, and beau­ti­ful Ja­panese tech­niques that are lit­tle known to the world and I would like to see them merge with mod­ern, Ca­sio watches,” says Ibe.

A lim­ited edi­tion model of its flag­ship MR-G se­ries, the MRG-G2000HT, fea­tures au­to­matic up­dates by satel­lite wher­ever you are in the world, and boasts a hand­made tex­ture cre­ated us­ing the

tsuiki metal-ham­mer­ing tech­nique. “Tsuiki is a met­al­work­ing tech­nique where a sheet of metal is ham­mered out thinly into a three­d­i­men­sional shape. His­tor­i­cally, it was used to make cop­per­ware and other metal con­tain­ers, ar­mour and hel­mets which needed to be both thin and strong. This tech­nique is nowa­days ap­plied to air­craft, rail cars and now, G-Shock,” Ibe ex­plains with care.

For this, Ca­sio col­lab­o­rated with Bi­hou Asano, a third-gen­er­a­tion mas­ter ar­ti­san of the tsuiki tech­nique. Asano is widely hailed for his work for the Ky­oto State Guest House and has, over the years, par­tic­i­pated in restora­tion work of items des­ig­nated as im­por­tant cul­tural prop­er­ties in Ja­pan. For the MRG-G2000HT, Asano ap­plied to the bezel and the cen­tre row of the band, a ka­sumi-tsuchime pat­terned fin­ish of over­lap­ping ham­mered lines. The bezel and the case­back are also fin­ished in a deep indigo fondly called “Ja­pan blue” that is tra­di­tion­ally val­ued, ren­dered us­ing a blue di­a­mond-like car­bon fin­ish.

“Our his­tory is one of chal­lenge,” he says. “I started by cre­at­ing a watch that was tough. It was plas­tic then, and we pro­gressed to metal over the years. My man­date, to my­self, and ev­ery­one in the team is to con­tinue to evolve. We are Ja­pan, but we are also new world. My des­tiny in life is to work hand-in-hand with peo­ple I am work­ing with, at any point in my life, to cre­ate some­thing that lasts for other peo­ple. I’d like to con­tinue to see mod­els of higher qual­ity but maybe at a lower price for every­day peo­ple.”

“JAN­GAN PUTUS ASA,” said the en­gi­neer sport­ingly dur­ing his an­i­mated public pre­sen­ta­tion on more G-Shocks to come. Ibe not just spoke whole sen­tences in Ba­hasa Malaysia; he clearly un­der­stood what he was say­ing. A new lan­guage, at his age? “My per­sonal motto is to never give up. I be­lieve that no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult some­thing is, no mat­ter how hard you have to work, it is im­por­tant not to give up.”

He ex­plains his mo­ti­va­tion this way: he feels proud­est not from be­ing recog­nised as the in­ven­tor of G-Shock, but from meet­ing peo­ple who tell him they are “so happy” they can now wear a watch that will not break eas­ily.

Who are this man’s bench­marks? “I ad­mire Leonardo da Vinci. He was a real ge­nius. A pro­fes­sional in so many ar­eas, not just as a physi­cian, but also as an artist, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, a de­signer

and a philoso­pher. He is re­ally some­one that I look up to. Un­for­tu­nately I’m not that ta­lented.”

But Ibe does in­deed have other tal­ents he par­lays into his work. We call on the Bea­tles to ex­plain: Do­ing the gar­den, dig­ging the weeds / Who could ask for more? / Will you still need me, will you still feed me / When I’m sixty-four.

Ibe is 64, still needed and jaunty with it. When he’s not globe-trotting in his role as brand am­bas­sador, he is an or­ganic veg­etable farmer who re­con­nects with the source of cre­ation via his patch of earth, at home.

“I think I’m the only en­gi­neer I know who farms!” he laughs, be­fore pro­vid­ing this coun­ter­in­tu­itive take on the dif­fer­ence be­tween en­gi­neer­ing and farm­ing: “I cre­ate things at work to ex­press my­self. En­gi­neer­ing is a very pre­cise but cre­ative process. You can try any­thing, and do things any way you want and come up with some­thing to­tally new. Farm­ing is not like that. It is a very pre­cise and set process. I can­not change how to plant, where to plant, or even when to plant how­ever I want, and that is why when I’m not work­ing, I like to plant.”

Never mind! How many G-Shocks does he own? “San! (Three!)” he laughs. The ex­act same model, in three colours. “White for sum­mer, black for au­tumn and spring, and red for win­ter.” We re­peat the colours to our­selves... Clearly, the en­gi­neer and the farmer is also an ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist.

Kikuo Ibe sign­ing a to­ken for a fan at the launch of G-Shock MR-G 2017 Ham­mer Tone.

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