Brand story: How to be a geek god
Kikuo Ibe on the dream of G-Shock.
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.