Tong, designer of 47 Ronin Watch Straps
Tong, designer of 47 Ronin Watch Straps

47Ronin – A Singaporean Shokunin’s Story

Japanese craftsmen, or shokunin, are famous worldwide for their superb work and dedication to their craft. Touched by their single-minded devotion to quality, Tong of 47Ronin hopes to emulate this spirit in Singapore with his watch straps. Each of his handcrafted straps is a piece of Japanese culture and tells its own unique story.

It is interesting then, to know that Tong did not start out looking to become a craftsman. After graduation, he moved to Japan for work, consulting for Japanese and Singaporean businesses hoping to enter the market in either country. Even after moving back to Singapore, work and pleasure bring him to Japan a few times each year, giving him the opportunity to explore different regions of Japan to look for materials and inspiration.

Over the years, working on bringing Japanese products into Singapore gradually inspired him to start making his own, and this is how he began his watch strap and leather craft business. Tong’s networks that he forged as a consultant have proved to be useful time and again. He attributes his success with sourcing materials and connecting with fellow craftsmen in Japan to his fluency in the language and familiarity with the culture. Also, living in the Nishijin district of Kyoto when he was working in Japan helped too, by giving Tong an introduction to Japanese fabric and textiles. The area is known for its brocade, the Nishijin-ori, a woven fabric often used for kimono obi.

Today, Tong collaborates with indie watchmakers such as Watanabe Koubo. He incorporates rare Japanese materials into his straps, such as tatami-beri, a patterned textile used to wrap the sides of tatami mats; and menuki, small ornaments woven underneath the handle wrap of a katana. He also talks about one of the more memorable materials he’s worked with – the daini-botan, or second button. Watch to find out more about this bittersweet wartime token of love and the traditions it has inspired for generations after

Tong is quick to credit the strong Japanese influences that have guided him along the way. Hailing from capitalist Singapore made it difficult for Tong at first to understand how shokunin could put so much blood, sweat, and tears into a product without a single thought toward its price. However, as he got to know these shokunin and understand their mindset, he started to appreciate how their primary motivators are customer satisfaction and the drive to create something of paramount quality. The Japanese craftsman’s ikigai, or raison d’etre, has since had a profound impact on the way Tong approaches his creations.

47Ronin - Tong's watchstraps

So does Tong see traditional Japanese crafts gaining a greater global presence in the future? 

The answer is yes. A big believer in cross-border collaborations, Tong feels that having artisans from different countries team-up would be synergistic. He thinks that local craftsmen would have a better idea of what the domestic market wants, and that knowledge could be combined with Japanese elements to make something that is “more acceptable, more functional in a new country, new region.”

About the author

Translator, writer, and all-around multilingual person.
Always on the lookout for interesting people and projects in Japanese/English/Chinese.