Note: The following information was taken from articles in major publications and other credible sources.
Under the ownership of CBS, Fender continued to let their standards of quality slip so dramatically that musicians were buying more and more imports from Japan. By the late 70s/early 80s, many of the copies, which were previously considerably cheaper, were now of superior quality. Fenders reputation as well as market share was slipping more and more.
A new management team was largely recruited from Yamaha’s American operation in 1981. Their approach was to
A) Address quality control by reinvestment and staff training in the US
B) Produce Fender guitars in Japan
Negotiations ensued with two Japanese distribution companies, Kanda Shokai and Yamano Music. In March or 1982, Fender Japan was established. Fender owned the product licenses, had 50% of the board seats, and 38 percent of the stock. Fuji Gen-Gakki was chosen to build Fender Japan instruments. They had been known for producing Ibanez guitars.
Fender made an effort to study the pre-CBS instruments, which had originally made their reputation. They went to vintage dealers, taking measurements from pre-CBS instruments. Fender even bought several instruments for closer study, including a 1961 Stratocaster. The United Statesfactory in Fullerton and Fender Japan began producing vintage reissues. Interestingly, the Japanese were the first to succeed. Their outstanding quality resulted in the now famous quote by Dan Smith, Director of Marketing, Electric Guitars at the time :“Everybody came up to inspect them and the guys almost cried, because the Japanese product was so good – it was what we had been having a hell of a time trying to do.”
The original idea was for Fender Japan to produce guitars for Japan. However, when Fender’s European distributors called for budget Fenders to compete with the flood of oriental imports affecting sales, a range of low price guitars was launched under the Squier brand.
CBS decided to get out of the musical instrument business in 1984. Fender was sold to an investment group led by Bill Schultz, incumbent President of Fender Musical Instruments. The Fullerton factory was not part of the deal – US production ceased in February 1985. Near the end of 1985 a new factory was established in Corona, but for a while the ‘new’ Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) mostly relied upon Japanese production. It has been estimated that 80% of guitars sold in the US between late 1984 and mid 1986 were sourced from Fender Japan.
Fender Japan still exists. The guitars (aside from unique models not conflicting with existing US/Mexican made guitars) are no longer officially exported to Europe or the USA. Those territories are sold to by FMIC’s USA and Mexican factories.
Fender JV guitars were produced from 1982 to very early 1984. NOTE, there are some later guitars with JV serial numbers. These should NOT be confused with the high quality JV models produced in Japan from 82-84.
There are also Fender Squire JV models. These were lower cost models used to compete with low cost imports. The Squires had mostly Sen bodies, which the Fender JVs were mostly more expensive alder. The Squires also used a cheaper Zinc tremelo block, instead of steel on the Fender JVs.
The Stratocasters were produced in 2 versions, a 1957 and a 1962. The highest level models were the ST 85 and the ST 115, with the ST-115 being the flagship model (and by far the rarest and most sought after on the vintage market). The ST85 and ST115 are nitro with steel tremelo blocks. The ST115 has a shielded pickguard, USA parts such the the pots, caps, and switches, and has USA pickups.
There should be a sticker on the back of the neck saying 85 or 115. Further identification/verification methods include checking the body for nitro, the tremelo block for being steel (use a magnet), and the electronics being made in the USA.