As featured on The Straits Times, November 3, 2019
by Wong Kim Hoh
There is a toilet on the third ﬂoor of Casio's research and development facility in Hamura, a city outside Tokyo, which Kikuo Ibe avoids.
"It brings back bad memories and reminds me of tough days ﬁlled with frustration," he says through an interpreter.
The 66-year-old spent a lot of time in the toilet nearly four decades ago when he was a young research engineer with the Japanese consumer electronics giant.
It was where he dropped hundreds of prototypes in his quest to produce an indestructible watch.
He spent more than two years ﬂinging about 200 watches out the window before he ﬁnally came up with one which did not smash to smithereens upon hitting the ground.
That watch became the iconic Casio G-Shock.
In 1983, the ﬁrst G-Shock model DW-5000 made its debut, boasting 200m water resistance and the ability to survive a fall of more than 10m.
Since then, hundreds of different models have been launched, with prices ranging from $120 for a basic model to $100,000 for a limited edition piece fashioned from solid 18k gold. Two years ago, Casio announced that worldwide shipments of G-Shock watches had passed the 100 million mark.
Affectionately known as the father of G-Shock, Mr Ibe humorously describes his 36-year-old offspring as "mature, with a good grip on life". A slight man with a beatific demeanour and an affecting warmth, the mechanical engineering graduate never set out to create a global phenomenon.
He was born, the elder of two children, in Niigata, a scenic port city along the coast of the Sea of Japan, which is famous for its rice.
His father was a civil servant, and his mother, a housewife. "I'm very grateful to my parents because they were not the types to say: 'Study, study harder.' I grew up happy, playful and cheerful," says Mr Ibe who was in town to launch Game Changer, a new G-Shock campaign.
"I didn't need fancy gadgets or toys. I could spend hours playing with tin cans."
When he was eight, the family moved to Tokyo.
"There were no big adjustments. I loved that the city was so full of surprises. There were so many things I hadn't seen before," he says.
Life shimmied along and he ended up studying mechanical engineering at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Breaking into a big grin, he says it was not because he harboured dreams of becoming an engineer.
"I just did the most practical thing. I looked at all the courses I qualified for and just chose one.
"Honestly, I didn't have great ambitions or dreamt about what I was going to be. I never thought of the future. It was always today and tomorrow, what I was going to do to make me happy."
He was sure of one thing though: He wanted to travel and had his heart set on a backpacking trip through Europe.
To realise that dream, he took on several part-time jobs when he was an undergraduate.
One memorable gig was promoting and selling vegetables at the food section in a department store.
"The vegetables were not cheap and I learnt to size up customers, and zoom in on those who were likely to buy.
"Because it was a department store, many of the women who shopped there were elegant. As a promoter, I couldn't be too aggressive. I also had to be polite, presentable, and always put on a pleasant face. It wasn't easy," he says.
Working on construction sites, which he also did, was the complete opposite.
There was no need to put on a smiley face. "It wasn't important. You just had to get on with it, finish your work and then go home." He also worked in a yakisoba (stir-fried wheat noodles) stall.
"I cooked big batches, enough for 30 portions each time. No one taught me how to do it. I learnt by watching the cook," he says.
He ended up in Casio after graduation in the late 1970s but not by design.
"I went for several interviews at other companies but failed to get any offers. For some reason, Casio actually offered me a job as a production engineer."
The Japanese electronics giant - which started out making calculators when it was formed in 1946 before branching into other products - had then just started manufacturing watches. Mr Ibe was assigned to the newly formed digital watch design department.
The idea of making an almost indestructible watch came about because of an accident.
When Mr Ibe finished high school, his father had given him a mechanical watch as a graduation present.
He loved and treasured that timepiece and was devastated when a stranger knocked into him one day and caused it to fall to the floor and break into pieces. "I had only that one watch," he says.
He guffaws when asked what brand it was.
"Many people have asked me that question. It was a Japanese brand but it was not a Casio. I don't want to give a negative impression or damage their reputation," he says.
In 1981, he started thinking about a shock-proof timepiece sturdy enough for construction workers - he had noticed many of them not wearing watches as they beavered away outside the Casio office - and those working in tough environments.
The watch he had in his head was one with a battery life of 10 years, was water-resistant to 10m, and which would survive a fall of 10ft.
"I don't remember what others said and I didn't care," says Mr Ibe who began by designing tough housings for LCD quartz movements.
He was so earnest that Casio made it an official project and gave him three assistants whom he called Team Tough.
"My proposal to the management was very simple. 'I want to make a tough, unbreakable watch.' But the board members supported it without any questioning," he recalls.
By then married, he threw himself into the project.
"Once I like something, I will devote myself to it. If I'm not interested, I won't even pay attention. I'm a bit selfish that way.
"My colleagues would go home but I'd be in the office working on the watch. I went home only to sleep."
The father of a 36-year-old civil servant son scrunches his face into a pained expression when asked how his wife felt.
"She knew I was doing something difficult although I didn't tell her how tough it was. She just kept quiet and accepted the situation," he says.
The toilet on the third storey of his office building became his testing ground. "I spent a lot of time there. My colleagues probably thought I had a weak stomach. I didn't tell them what I was doing. When there was someone around, I'd hide in a cubicle. When the toilet was unoccupied, I'd drop the watches from the window."
For two years, he toiled away with no breakthrough. His motto? Never give up.
But over time, the pressure - self-inflicted - mounted.
He decided one day that he would give himself just one more week. If he failed, he would resign.
"I told myself I would work on the watch 24/7 from Monday to Sunday that week and that I wouldn't sleep. I would sleep in my dreams.
If I didn't sleep, Sunday wouldn't come, right," he says with a hearty laugh. Sunday came with no answer in sight until he saw a girl bouncing a ball in a park.
Eureka! It hit him that he should put the watch's movement inside a "floating module" which would protect it from shock.
"I asked myself: 'Should I head for the office now to do some testing?' No. Instead I skipped home. I was so happy. It wasn't success yet but it was a day of confidence. I felt so confident."
There was great relief that he didn't have to write a resignation letter.
"Although I planned to resign if I failed, I put off writing one because I thought to myself: 'This letter would be kept for many years and many people would read it. It would be so embarrassing'."
The Casio G-Shock was not an immediate success.
"It is very famous and saleable now, but it was not like that at the start. But the engineers, the marketing department, the journalists and everybody didn't give up. They just kept trying to raise awareness."
The experience, he says, was life-changing in more ways than one.
"It's made me realise that things can be done, there are solutions to most problems."
More importantly, he says that the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations have filled him with a great well of thankfulness and gratitude.
"After what I've gone through, I just want to be kind and gentle to everyone," he says with a quiet smile.
Seeing his baby become a global phenomenon with rabid fans - a Japanese construction boss reportedly built a room to house his collection of 2,000 G-Shocks - is still unreal to the soft-spoken man. He himself owns only three models, all classic DW-5600.
"I've had them for more than 20 years. One black, one white and one red. The black one I wear during spring and autumn, the white for summer and the red for winter."
Since its birth nearly four decades ago, the G-Shock has been given new looks by different teams and generations of engineers and designers.
Mr Ibe does not have a say in every project and if he wants to work on a new model, he has to assemble his own team.
"I'm very happy to see so many different varieties of G-Shock; we think there's not enough," says the cheerful soul who has been working on an all-sapphire version of the G-Shock.
Meanwhile, he is happy traversing the globe, introducing his creation to fans, old and new.
"When I'm not thinking about my trips, I'll be thinking about my vegetables and whether they are alive, and being good boys and girls," says the avid farmer who rents a 120 sq m plot of land to grow cucumbers and other seasonal vegetables.
"When you grow vegetables, you see everything, from the sprouting to the harvesting. The analogue world and my hobby often come together and give me ideas."
And that is when he is the happiest.
Article content has been adapted and all image credits to The Straits Times ©