What’s better, a CIJ Fender or an MIJ Fender? Is there a difference? We dig into the history of “Crafted in Japan” and “Made in Japan” Fender guitars to try and get to the bottom of it.
I’m going to start off with a confession. I may have once sold a guitar for more than it was worth based on a tiny decal on the heel of its neck. Now, in my defense, I also paid more for that guitar based on the tiny decal on the heel of the neck. What specifically am I talking about here? I am talking about a Fender guitar that was labeled as Crafted in Japan. So what is the difference between Fender guitars labeled as Crafted in Japan (which you’ll see us refer to here as CIJ) and Made in Japan (which we’ll refer to as MIJ)? Let’s dive in.
How I got sucked into the CIJ Fender hype
I’m not a Japanese guitar expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve owned two Japanese Fenders in my life. This 1999 CIJ Jaguar is one of the coolest guitars I’ve ever put my hands on, and it will never leave me. The other was a 2002 CIJ Fender Jazzmaster that I have since sold, but is the reason I decided to make this video. First off, I am not proud of my naivete in this story I’m about to tell. But I think we’ve all had similar experiences, whether it be with a guitar or something else entirely. A number years ago, I was in the market for a non-USA Jazzmaster model that I could take on tour and not have to worry about. I started with the Made in Mexico options and landed myself in the deep rabbit hole known as online guitar forums.
While processing more information than I could take in, much less fact check, I deduced that Japanese vendors were superior to their Mexican counterparts. And according to the forums, in some cases, there were claims that the Japanese models were better than the U.S. models. I was intrigued. So I decided to try out this new website that had just emerged called reverb.com, where I searched for Japanese Jazzmasters. I was presented with a handful of options, but one grabbed my attention. It was Lake Placid blue, and it was priced a bit higher than the other options. In the opening sentence of the description, the seller proudly pointed out that this particular guitar was Crafted in Japan and not Made in Japan, and was therefore more valuable. I’ll admit to being careless here, but I took the seller at his word, grabbed my credit card and purchased this superior Crafted in Japan model, and took it out on tour. In general, the guitar was fine.
It wasn’t anything to write home about. But for a tour beater, it did its job. After two tours with it, I decided it was time to let it go. So I again took to reverb.com and lifted my Crafted in Japan Jazzmaster above what the Made in Japan Jazzmasters were listed for. I included a similar opening about CIJ being more valuable, and it sold in seconds with no questions asked. All’s well that ends well, right? Meh, maybe for me. But I’ve always wondered what made the Crafted in Japan label different from the Made in Japan label, and if any of it even matters. In order to fully wrap our heads around these two simple labels, Crafted in Japan and made to Japan, we have to take a broader look at the Fender corporation worldwide, dating back to the early ’80s. Buckle up.
The Early History of Fender in Japan
MIJ with FujiJen Gakki
We’ll start in 1981. Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president of the United States, Bette Davis Eyes was topping the radio charts, and Fender was still owned by CBS, and ventured into its first guitar production in Japan. These guitars were made at the FujiGen Gakki plant. The guitars from that era in the FujiGen plants were labeled Made in Japan. Now, these were higher quality instruments than the instruments being made in the U.S. at the time, and they’re considered to be quite valuable and really great playing guitars. Two years later in 1983, the Squier series began its life as a MIJ FujiGen Gakki-produced instrument. These early Squiers were essentially the same Fender guitars the factory was making back in 1981, but with a different headstock decal. These early Squier guitars dated approximately 1983 to 1987, are considered to be super high-quality guitars, and have become a bit of a collector’s item.
Fast forward two years from 1983 to 1985, CBS sold Fender to the employee-led ownership group headed by Bill Schultz. The sale, however, did not include the manufacturing facility, and as a result, except for a small number of already completed guitars, the only Fender guitars produced 1985 to 1986 were made in Japan by the FujiGen Gakki corporation.
This era brought about some fairly well-respected models as well, like the contemporary Strat. 1987 was a big year, as Fender purchased the production facility in Corona, California. American guitars were once again produced, and the early production USA guitars are widely considered to be some of the finest guitars Fender has ever built. Also in 1987, Fender opened the factory in Ensenada, Mexico. Fender moved the bulk of the non-USA models of Fender and Squier from Japan to Mexico. Moving into the 1990s, in general, throughout the ’90s, Fender continued to make guitars at the FujiGen Gakki plant in Japan, but these guitars were intended to be sold to the Japanese market.
Dyna Gakki and Tokai step in
They’re great guitars and they are labeled Made in Japan. Now, here is where you got to start paying attention. In 1992, the Dyna Gakki corporation began making guitars for Fender as well. These guitars were labeled as Crafted in Japan. There is all kinds of speculation as to the reasoning behind this, but from 1992 to 1996, it’s safe to assume that anything labeled as Crafted in Japan was made at the Dyna plants, and anything labeled Made in Japan was produced by FujiGen. The quality of the early ’90s CIJ is similar to that of MIJ.
In 1997, Fender’s presence in Japan had another big shift. The Tokai corporation joined with Dyna as the exclusive manufacturers of Fender guitars produced in Japan, and continued to be stamped Crafted in Japan. These early Tokai Fenders are the real deal. According to lore, some of the U.S. made Corona guitars from the late ’80s that we were talking about earlier, the guitars that were some of the finest Fender ever built, were actually built by Tokai.
Fender builds their own plant
Now we’ll jump all the way to 2007. From 2007 to 2015, Fender partnered with Kanda Shokai and Yamano Gakki to build their own Fender plants in Japan. For the most part, they produced guitars for the Japanese market, along with a few Fender special run models for the Western and U.S. markets. These instruments were stamped with Made in Japan, but also Crafted in Japan. Who knows why? The general assumption is that it was done purely for marketing purposes. After 2015, Fender bought out Kanda Shokai and Yamano Gakki, and the Japanese plant is now run by Fender. They still produce guitars primarily for the Japanese market, along with the FSR models that they have been producing. These guitars are labeled both Made in Japan and Crafted in Japan.
So where did my CIJ Fenders come from?
So let’s take some of this information and see if we can trace back the two Japanese Fenders that I’ve personally owned.
This Jaguar [shown in video above], the one that I love so much, was made in 1999, and it’s labeled as Crafted in Japan. I now know that it was made by Tokai and is one of “the good ones.” But really, even if it wasn’t one of the good ones on paper, it’s still one of the most incredible guitars I’ve ever played. And the CIJ Jazzmaster that haunts my memories, well, that Jazzmaster was produced in 2002, and I now know that it was one of the early-ish Tokai Fenders. Therefore, the price bump would have been justified from a market perspective, I guess. (I almost walked into a significantly longer article there.)
So what did I learn here? Well, I learned that manufacturing is complex. We tend to like simple. We want a simple explanation, a thumbs up or a thumbs down. We’re simply not going to get that with the CIJ, MIJ controversy.
Let’s sum up what we can definitively know from the timeline that we just discussed.
- Early ’80s MIJ and Squier guitars Made in Japan are awesome and collectors items.
- Early ’90s MIJ was made by FujiGen, and CIJ was made by Dyna. The build quality is considered to be comparable.
- Late ’90s to early 2000 CIJ Fenders were made by Tokai, and are considered to be a higher standard of guitar.
- Anything after 2007 can either have MIJ or CIJ label, and it doesn’t mean squat.
If you have a CIJ or MIJ Fender and you want to do some research on it, a good place to start is guitardaterproject.org to get the exact lineage of the guitar that you own.
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