The early days of Fender Japan were occupied with survival and necessitated quick maneuvering in a rapidly changing world, filled with rapidly changing perceptions of Fender guitars. Fender Japan arguably helped the ailing giant stay in operation. Why not embrace, rather than resist, this change in manufacturing venue? I wouldn’t deny that Fender made some great guitars in the ’70s, but it’s commonly thought that Fender’s quality dropped quite a bit from that of the ’50s and ’60s. During the ’70s, in the so-called “law suit” era, Japan was producing Gibson and Fender style electrics with excellent results. A far cry from the less savory late 1960’s Japanese budget made instruments.

Japan’s versions of Fender guitars were beginning to dominate the lower dollar market. Instead of competing, why not join forces? It was a win for everyone — the Japanese industry got the contract and Fender USA got a taste of the lower dollar market instead of nothing at all (keep in mind, the USA built Fender Mustang was the most inexpensive guitar in Fender’s catalog, back in the ’70s). Pile on the fact that more Fender guitars would be sold worldwide and the consumer would have more budget-minded options. It made 100% sense looking back…

However, a clash did occur. If you lived to witness export model guitars made under an American name in the early days, you know it wasn’t always as cozy as it is today.

Some people resisted Fender Japan, the same way imported cars were resisted at first. These very well-made Japanese guitars were taboo and forbidden by the old guard, despite how good they were. The ’70s were times when the American mind-set was biased towards American guitars, especially that of “serious players” (whatever that means). It wasn’t just burgundy furniture, mood rings, the Brady Bunch, and a madman named Evil Knievel jumping a 500 lb. Harley, which made the 1970s strange and hard to imagine today.

Open minded and younger players embraced the more affordable and high quality guitars without the bias of the previous generation (as an awkward footnote for some, these early MIJ Fenders are highly regarded and sought out by what’s left of the old guard, as well as everyone else, when seeking a great, older Fender).

The Made in Japan VJ and “Popular” Squire Strats and Teles

In 1982, the last gasps of Fender CBS were close enough to fog your windows. CBS was desperately trying to turn domestic-quality Fender around, hoping to become more profitable. Then Fender Japan started production. Part of the deal was to have Japan’s builders stop making Fender copies, and start building genuine Fender guitars for export to the USA for domestic consumption. The well noted Fugi Gen factory was chosen to make the Fender guitars.

For Japan, a homegrown Fender guitar was now available, made in the same factory as the Fender copies, but bearing the Fender name with “MIJ” notation. In European countries, the new Japan Fender is advertised as “the popular Fender guitar” at a value price. In the USA, the name Squire is used to protect the marquee name of Fender.

It should be noted that at this time, Fender USAs were born (again), to differentiate the place of origin. The Made in Japan Squire replaced the Fender Lead series. The Lead and Bullet series guitars looked like you opted for the cheapo. They looked like a Strat that was not left in the oven long enough to take shape. It resembled a Strat, but could not be mistaken for one, without the help of some very strong incense (the kind Timmy Leary loved).

In 1983, the Made in Japan Squire/Fender guitars hit the market place, in the form of the Squire Strat, Squire Tele, and Squire Bullet bass. For the first time in the USA, you could buy an official Fender Squire guitar that looked just like the more expensive models, to the letter. Some will argue that the imported Made in Japan guitar rivals or exceeds the then current USA Fender offerings. I won’t argue that, you decide. All, but the most stubborn holdouts, will agree that these early Japan Squires were a pro-level guitar, at a bargain price.

Guitars such as these, from the tail end of the Fender CBS years, are now classics—and deservedly so. They have vibe, tone, look, and playability in abundance. Probably the best “introductory” electric guitars ever offered. The made for Japanese domestic market versions of the same year bear the “Fender” logo proudly, and are not just Japanese built Strats and Teles, but reissue guitars. VJ serial number guitars from this era boasted 1957 or 1962 specs, and are wildly in demand to this day by players seeking high quality at an affordable price. Price tags on these have gone up considerably, and will likely continue to rise.

In 1984, CBS called it quits, taking the state of the art Fender Fullerton California factory, home. Fender’s new owners led by Tom Schultz had no choice in the matter when all USA production ended. It would rest on the back of Fender Japan to carry the whole ball of wax, until the new Fender factory in Corona, California was built. The introduction and acceptance of the “Made in Japan” Squire/Fender did much more than intended. It was good enough to serve as a life raft, and bought time for Fender to get back on its feet with the American Standard series and its new factory. The era ushered in by the Squire marks a return to glory domestically, with help from overseas.

Made in Japan Fender Rosewood Tele

No soul that ever loved a Tele or the Beatles (that should cover all of us, right?) can pretend they never lusted for a rosewood Tele.

A desperate bid to get The Beatles seen with Fender gear ended up with Fender gifting a bunch to them; including a Bass VI that saw plenty of action, an assortment of new amps, and more, including a very special guitar for George Harrison.

Roger Rosmeisl and a young Phil Kubicki (yeah, the Factor bass guy) were tasked with making a Tele out of solid Rosewood. A rosewood Strat was to be made for Hendrix as well, but sadly, Hendrix died before it was delivered.

The foundation of the idea was actually a very cunning move on Fender’s part, though it all started with a simple concept — get guitars in the hands of superstars so it would boost the sales of the axe they wield. Today it’s common, but it was not always so. Back in the day, John Lennon was flatly denied a Gibson SJ-200 at no cost, even with the promise to feature it on the cover of the upcoming Magical Mystery Tour album cover (maybe that was a tactical error, huh?).

Harrison went to work on sessions that would become “Let it Be” – the last album, film, and rooftop performance of the Fab Four. The rosewood Tele Harrison played now lives on in eternity, on the album and in the concert footage.

Unfortunately the Tele was a series of problems to build. Rosewood is oil rich and challenging to get finish to adhere to properly. It was also quite heavy for a Telecaster (or even a Les Paul), so measures were taken to chamber the inside of the body and join the two halves with a thin sliver of maple in the center. Fender tried to make the Rosewood Tele work as a production run, but was never able to overcome the problems of building it. The bid to get a Beatle on board with a new Fender guitar worked, but the follow-through failed. The problematic Rosewood Tele lasted only from 1969-1972. So as you might imagine, original, vintage Rosewood Teles are expensive and outside most players’ reach.

Fast forward 14 years to the new and improved Fender. In 1986, Fender had full confidence in its Japanese factory, seeing only consistency and greatness, while maintaining inexpensive cost. So Fender seized the opportunity to give Fender players what they want, by recreating some of its “glory days” guitars.

The Japanese factory managed to work out the production issues that beguiled Fender in the early 70s and The Rosewood Tele was reborn, in all its former glory. The guitar was a hit and was manufactured in Japan for 10 years! It was even offered at a lower price than the soon to follow American Standard Tele.

The value offered from Fender Japan is now crystal clear. The Made in Japan Rosewood Tele is a fine guitar. The fit and finish are flawless, as are the playability and tone. Without the made in Japan decal, hidden on the back heel, the MIJ Fender is as close as you might dare dream possible to the original, rare, pricey, historically important Rosewood Tele.

At less than $500.00 (street) or $699.99 (MSRP) in ‘86, it carried the price tag of a guitar with far less boastful appointments and far less quality. Fender Japan is a force to be reckoned with. These MIJ rosewood Teles are the first MIJ Fender to top the $2k price point on the secondhand market—and are only going up.

Floral and Paisley, ’62 and ’57 MIJ Fenders

Around the time the reintroduced ’68 models came about, Fender was rebuilding, leaning heavily on Fender Japan operations to stay buoyant. Chosen for resurrection were the positively strange, short-lived “wallpaper” models – the pseudo psychedelic paisley and shockingly rare floral pattern instruments. More staunchly traditional models were also introduced, with a ’50’s, style two color maple board and its ’60s counterpart, the rosewood “slab board,” pre-CBS models.

I’m not so old that I need a dribble bib (but it wouldn’t hurt when eating chili), but I am old enough to remember when the word “vintage” followed by “guitar” raised eyebrows with mild contempt. “Vintage” was a term applied mostly to fine wine, exotic cars, and jewelry.

Hendrix re-awakened planet Earth to the Strat, but he did so using mostly brand new (at the time) post-CBS big headstock Strats. Hendrix reinvigorated the Strat, but not necessarily the vintage Strat.

Throughout the early and mid-’70s, it was hard to give away a maple board, two color ’50s Strat.

Fender’s “Golden” era (’50s and ’60s) American solid body electrics started to become of interest with a little help from unauthorized Japanese copies. Competitors in Japan made some high quality guitars that were essentially carbon copies of ’50s and ’60s Fenders, replicated from “used” guitars bought in America. Fender Japan would have to combat companies like Fernandes, Greco, Toki and others with “Fender Japan” re-issues.

Fender “Made in Japan” (Fugi factory instruments) built the above-mentioned Rosewood Tele, as well as the Pink Paisley and Blue floral models. These rare guitars were likely chosen by Fender because they would be first to market with these models. The point of Fender Japan was originally to combat the copy market. The problem was Fugi Gen wasn’t the only factory making Fender style guitars. The difference was now the Fugi factory is Fender Japan.

The term “vintage guitar” became less awkward by 1985, and re-issued classics were becoming wildly popular. The Made in Japan Fender Vintage series was now available in Japan and the USA, with the Fender decal on the headstock. Fender Japan and Fender USA were free to dominate the market, with real, Fender branded vintage replicas. By 1986, available reissues included:

Strats:

  • 1957 style w/ maple fretboard in 2-color ‘burst
  • 1962 style, w/ slab-style rosewood fretboard in 3 color ‘burst
  • 1968 Pink Paisley or Blue Floral

Teles:

  • 1952 Tele in butterscotch blonde w/ tweed case
  • 1962 Tele Custom (bound top) w/ rosewood ‘board in 3 color ‘burst or CAR
  • 1968 Pink Paisley or Blue Floral

P Bass: 

  • 60’s style w/ rosewood or maple board, offered in LPB, black, CAR, brown sunburst, arctic white.

These are all fine, highly detailed recreations, with vibe, tone, and mojo. They range from “spaghetti” logo, to end pin.

The vintage reissue MIJ (Fugi factory 1982-1992) series guitars are the ones the world will forever love. They are still affordable (but not cheap) and still considered great guitars—by anyone’s standards. MIJ Fenders were more than just great new models and trend setting vintage re-issues. These guitars helped keep Fender afloat during the time the Corona factory (still Fender’s home today) was being built. They helped change the world’s perspective (especially the USA’s) on just how fine a Japanese guitar can be.

 

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.