When it comes to watchmakers, Japan has some heavy hitters: Seiko, Citizen, and Casio. These multinational corporations pump out tens of millions of watches per year, ranging from $10 to $500,000 each. While most of these watches are sold worldwide, some remain exclusive to the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM). This is a coordinated decision by the brand; it comes down to the watch itself (function, design, history) and its expected performance in a given region. Despite being crafted for the Japanese market, these JDM watches are often more desirable overseas due to their exclusivity, design, and craftsmanship. With this craftsmanship comes the convoluted “Made in Japan” distinction. Don’t worry – I'll explain why and how it’s confusing. Finally, we’ll talk about where to buy JDM watches outside of Japan.
JDM Watches: Made in Japan or Made for Japan?
Image Source: fratellowatches.com
First, let’s differentiate JDM variants and JDM references. The former is often more desirable; it describes a watch with no internationally-available counterpart. A good example of this is the Seiko SZSB006 (pictured above). This model is completely unique to the Japanese market: it's essentially a faux-lumed Seiko Alpinist with a single push/pull crown, no compass, and arabic numerals at 12 and 6. There’s nothing like this outside of Japan.
Image Source: watchclicker.com
A good example of a JDM reference is the Seiko SBDC101: an identical watch to the internationally-available SPB143 (pictured above). The JDM reference’s one difference (aside from its reference number, obviously) is the “Made in Japan'' distinction on its hangtag. This holds a lot of sway; Japan has incredibly stringent standards when it comes to watchmaking. However, “Made in Japan” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Let’s continue with Seiko as an example. While almost all Seiko watches are assembled in Japan, some contain parts that are produced elsewhere in Asia: China, Malaysia, Thailand, and so on. You might be thinking – “Okay, so the ‘Made in Japan’ references source only Japanese-made parts”. This is not the case. Parts can be labeled “Made in Japan” even when they're made in other countries, so long as the production was overseen by a Japanese manager. If you think this sounds silly, I encourage you to watch Hodinkee’s “Inside Grand Seiko” series. Japanese craftsmanship goes beyond the workplace: it’s a deeply important personal and cultural pursuit.
Image Source: the-watch911.net
In short, JDM references can (and often do) come off of the same assembly line as international references. Many of these JDM watches have “Made in Japan” distinction despite having parts physically made in other countries. In reality, "Made in Japan" means different things at different price points. You won’t spot any differences between the SPB143 and the “Made in Japan” SBDC101 (both around $1,000). However, when you hold a Citizen ‘The Citizen’ or Grand Seiko – pricier, vertically integrated watches handcrafted in Japanese micro-studios – “Made in Japan” takes on a whole new meaning.
What Makes JDM Watches Desirable?
Naturally, consumers are drawn to exclusivity. Nothing triggers watch FOMO more than saying “you can only get this one in Japan”. Aside from the aforementioned JDM references (that may or may not be the same as their internationally-available doppelgangers), JDM models are categorically unique. The Citizen Chronomaster AQ4020-54Z – limited to 200 pieces in the JDM – comes to mind. Its deep red “washi” paper dial is unlike anything I've ever seen. On top of the fibrous red texture sit applied zaratsu-polished hour indices: polishing that extends to the date window and chamfers of the handset. At 6 o’clock, the Citizen eagle gives the dial a nice splash of gold, sitting right above the script ‘Chronomaster’ text. This watch is decidedly Japanese. Washi is traditional Japanese paper made from the fibers of indigenous plants. Crimson red is one of Japan’s national colors, representing power, energy, and strength. The Chronomaster AQ4020-54Z is a great example of why JDM watches exist – they’re a celebration of Japanese design, craftsmanship, and culture.
Where Can You Buy JDM Watches in the US (or anywhere)
Two JDM Variants of the new Orient Mako III Image Source: CT07 on watchuseek.com
As you probably guessed, you can buy JDM watches online. Finding and purchasing specific JDM watches is easier than ever. It’s perfectly legal to import JDM watches, and there are countless online marketplaces to help you do so. However, just because these sites make it convenient doesn’t mean it will be affordable. Watches above $800 are likely to impose some import fees and shipping costs can be significant. Be sure to shop around on multiple sites, and more importantly, be sure you’re not buying a JDM reference of a watch you can easily obtain domestically.