A Legendary Watchmaker Describes His Greatest Regrets

"All of the things we make will be forgotten eventually. But that’s OK."

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Jan 9 2018, 3:00pm

I wanted to talk to Japanese inventor Kikuo Ibe about time and regret. This is because the 65-year-old's most enduring creation represents a deep understanding of the immutability of mistakes. If you take a look at the oft-told origin story of Ibe’s indestructible G-Shock watch, his horological innovations spring from a realization that you can’t go back in time to fix what you’ve broken. Instead, your only option is to build something stronger and better than what came before.

The G-Shock was born out of an unfortunate accident. In 1982, the notoriously clumsy engineer collided into another pedestrian on the street, causing a watch his father had given him in high school to pop off his wrist. The watch cracked on the pavement, its hands dislodged and its caseback severed. The damage was irreversible and the watch was ruined. But the calamity imbued Ibe with his life’s singular obsession—to create a timepiece that could survive severe punishment.

The mark of success for Ibe was achieving the “triple ten,” which meant the watch would continue to work after suffering a ten-meter fall, have a ten-year battery life, and boast ten-bar (100 meter) water resistance. Leading an eight-person team at Casio, the Japanese consumer electronics company, Ibe built and destroyed more than 200 prototypes chasing this dream. He threw them out of windows and ran them over with cars. But the aha moment for the watch came to the inventor while he was sitting alone in a park, watching a little girl bounce a rubber ball up and down on the concrete. He noticed that due to the movement of air inside the ball, the outside suffered more shock than the center. To reach the triple ten, Ibe realized his watch needed a similar design—a resilient outer structure that would allow for internal movement.

The inaugural G-Shock, the DW-5000, was released in 1983 when he was 30 years old. Every element, from the bezel to the buttons, were designed to absorb and displace shock. It also featured a hollow case with a timekeeping module suspended in gel to recreate the bouncing-ball effect. It had a 200-meter water resistance and could easily survive a ten-meter fall.

Since that first wristwatch, the G-Shock has become an institution, spawning numerous variations that are revered by horologists, hardworking people, and hypebeasts alike. There are diver G-Shocks, analogue G-Shocks, smart G-Shocks, streetwear G-Shocks made with brands like Bape and Stussy, and high fashion G-Shocks made with vaunted labels like Maison Margiela and Robert Geller.

But as successful as the G-Shock has become, Mr. Kikuo Ibe is still a man tempered by contrition. When I spoke to him at a big 35th anniversary bash for the watch in November in New York City, the inventor talked about the perils of wasting time. For him, that was related to the hours he spent working on his iconic watch, instead of focusing more on his family. Just like his shattered watch, that lost time is something that cannot be restored. Of course, it’s never too late to make a change for the better. That is the promise of the future, and it’s something Ibe helped me recognize throughout our conversation. Here's what the inventor had to say.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Kikuo Ibe's words were translated by Hiroshi Fujimoto, General Manager of Planning at Casio's Timepiece Division.

VICE: What’s the first time you remember the passage of time?
Kikuo Ibe: The very first moment when I was aware of time is probably when I was in junior high school taking an exam. I did poorly. I remember wanting to go back in time and study harder. It’s more like a negative memory, but it made me particularly aware of time. I yearned to go back in time and do more.

As you’ve gotten older, has your concept of time changed at all?
As I have gotten older, I've become aware that time is something that is given equally. It’s a question of how you spend your time. But having said that, I think I spend my time poorly. I’m not good at spending time well. I always have regrets.

Can you tell me a regret you have in terms of time you felt you’ve wasted?
I have had many occasions where I hurried even though I didn’t need to hurry. I also tend to drop things at home and break things easily. So after I break things, I have regrets about the way I rush through things. I have those regrets quite often.

Is there any one thing that was broken that you wish you could have back?
There was a wine glass. It was a very important for me, but I dropped it and I broke it. I wish I could buy another one. But the glass I broke was one-of-a-kind. I can’t buy it again. That’s one thing I really regret breaking. And when I break something so important like that, I always wish I could go back in time.

Do you think that as an inventor, making stuff allows you to beat time because your creations live on even after you pass away?
Well, you can't beat time. Also, all of the things we make will be forgotten eventually. But that’s OK. Time always surpasses you. In Japan, we have a common saying, “Time solves everything.” This is true, because time is superior to everything else.

What do you think watches offer us?
Well, if I say it in a cool way, I think that time represents emotion in a particular moment. When you feel irritated, sad, or happy, or pleased, it’s something that you remember with five senses, but it’s always connected to a particular time. And watches help us tell that time.

Is there a different sense of time between say Japan and the United States or any other places you’ve travelled? Do you feel different countries or different communities have different rhythms and run on different times?
Yes. I do feel that the perception of time differs from one place to another. Some places are very strict about time, very punctual. And some other places are more relaxed and spend time more gingerly and relaxed. Japanese people tend to be very strict and punctual about time. It's positive and negative. When I travel to other countries, I can see the difference. One time I went to a Latin American country and I had an appointment for an interview. The appointment was at 10 AM in the hotel lobby. So I went there on time and and I waited. The interviewer arrived more than two hours late like it was no big deal. He just walked up and said, "Let’s start the interview." The experience made me think a lot about how time can be perceived differently in different cultures.

How much time does it take to create a groundbreaking idea like the G-Shock?
That depends on who you are. After I developed the G-Shock, I tried to come up with one more groundbreaking idea. But for the last 35 years or so, I haven’t been able to find another one. It’s been really long for me, but I think for some people it’s easy. They might come up with one great idea after another. For others, that would be almost impossible. Some folks might spend their lifetime looking for a groundbreaking idea and not succeed.

What is it like to be a father and how has that changed your perception of time?
Well, this is something that I look back on and regret. When my son was a small child, I was working really hard, therefore I didn’t spend much time with him. I was not a good father. I thought I would spend more time with him when he grew up. However, when he grew up and was older, he became very independent. I didn’t have the opportunity to spend as much time as I wanted with him.

Do you think your son looks at time in a different way than you do?
I’m kind of a restless person, but I think that my son is the opposite of me. I’m a good example for him of what not to do. He takes his time and he values his time. He’s much more relaxed than I am.

Did you give your son a G-Shock watch in the same way that your father gave you a watch?
I am not particular about objects in general. I remember giving my son a G-Shock, but I don't think he has ever used it. [ Laughs]

Do you think that things are moving at a faster pace today than when they were when you first created the G-Shock?
I’m certainly more restless today. I spend time very hastily—in a very haste manner. A part of it is the fact there’s too much information today. I think I’m swayed by all the information, that’s why I feel busier than before.

Your father’s broken gift is such a big part of the genesis of G-Shock. Is he still living today?
No. He passed away... In terms of the watch that he gave me, as I said earlier, I think all objects are forgotten. When I was faced with his death, I felt time had stopped. I didn’t feel anything special about the watch he gave me. It was useless.

As you get older, do you think about your own death and the possibility that your time is running out?
Yes. I do. I think about how I will feel when that moment comes. But I haven't experienced death yet, so it's still a bit of a mystery to me.

What is the happiest time you can point back to and remember?
When I got married and when my son was born. I picked these two occasions because I think these are things I couldn't do on my own. They were a joint effort. Even though I didn’t give birth to my son, his birth is something I did with my wife. I think that sense of working together with her gave me extreme joy.

Based on your experience, what is the best way to live without regret and take advantage of your time?
I’m not a good person to talk to about spending time wisely... But when you try to do something big, there tends to be a wall or obstacle in front of you. If you’re faced with a big wall, you should take your time to overcome it. Never give up. That’s my advice.

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