Clocks & Time in Edo Japan


A review of Clocks and Time in Edo Japan, by Yulia Frumer.

The logic of mechanical clock faces is seemingly obvious. We look at them several times a day never questioning their rationality despite the mental gymnastics required to discern what the two, sometimes three, apparently uncoordinated hands indicate. So embedded is the clock in our daily life that we use it to describe other movements (e.g. clockwise, anticlockwise) or directions (ever told someone to head in the 3 o’clock direction?) Yet, when in 1551 Oda Nobunaga, arguably Japan’s then most powerful warlord, was presented with a clock by the Jesuit Louis Frois, he returned it saying that “it would be useless in his hands” (p. 53). In this dissertation Yulia Frumer shows that, despite Nobunaga’s assertions, Western time-pieces could be very useful indeed. However, their utility could only be achieved by integrating them into early modern Japanese time-keeping practices. In this fastidious deconstruction of technological determinism, Frumer shows that the adoption of Western time-keeping mechanisms led not to a transformation in Japanese time-keeping practices, but rather to a transformation of Western clocks to fit Japanese conceptions of time.

Chapter 1 provides an explanation of the differences between Western and early modern Japanese conceptions of time. The Western system of a 24-hour day and solar year had the benefit of seasons falling on roughly the same dates in each year, but the disadvantage of months of unequal lengths that started and ended on different days of the week. In contrast, Edo-period Japanese used a system of ‘variable hours’. In this convention inherited from China, the day was divided into 12 ‘hours’ (toki or koku), each designated by one of the twelve animal signs. Six of these ‘hours’ fell during daylight hours and the remaining six at night. Seasonal variations in daylight meant that an ‘hour’ could last anywhere from about 77 to 156 ‘minutes’ with daylight and night time ‘hours’ equal only during the equinoxes. Frumer also shows how time-consciousness was nurtured and regulated centrally through calendar making and locally through the ringing of bells and drums. Far from being at the mercy of climatic divination, Edo-period Japanese were bound by a shared notion of human-regulated time.

The second chapter looks at how Western mechanisms were adapted to measure Japanese time. This, first of all, required changes to the appearance of the clock. Roman numerals were replaced with digits representing the animal indications for the hours. Then, the mechanism had to be changed to cope with the variable hours system. There were many types of clocks in existence in early modern Europe, but the most common was one wherein the speed of rotating mechanism was regulated by weights attached to a rod emanating from a bell. The rotation of the bell could be speeded up by moving weights outward, and slowed down by moving them inward. This system was exploited in Japan to create longer and shorter hours. It however required daily adjustment and frequent maintenance. Convenience is shown not to be the driver of technological adoption it is often presumed to be. Long after the introduction of spring-driven clocks, which required much less adjustment, weight-driven systems continued to predominate.

Thereafter the focus shifts away from clocks as mechanisms for measuring time to consider how their uses instigated shifts in the perception of time and space. As Frumer points out, “time-measurement without purpose is meaningless” (p. 135). Thus, Chapter 3 looks at how the aims of its users – whether they sought to use them to measure the time between eclipses or as a means of calculating geographical distance – resulted in clocks with radically different appearances, characteristics and functions.

This segues nicely into the discussion in Chapter 4 on how the use of clocks enabled geographical space to be newly envisaged as a time-based continuum. The use of time-measuring devices enabled astronomers to measure latitude, and this new knowledge was appropriated by geographers for mapping. The political value of this new-found knowledge can be seen most clearly in the case of the mapping of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido), an act that enabled symbolic possession of the territory, and later its actual possession. The discovery, too, that Sakhalin (Karafuto) was in fact an island rather than a peninsula, meant that its status as Russian territory could be called into question. Frumer also shows that once highly guarded maps of Japan began to circulate in Europe, Japan became at the mercy of a European geographical system that pushed it to the periphery.

Chapter 5 explores the reasons behind the popularity of Western mechanical clocks. Despite being cumbersome and requiring almost constant maintenance, these objects were highly desired and were collected by some even outside the ruling elite for their own personal possession. Frumer contends that it was the mechanical nature of clocks that stoked this desire, and links their popularity to that of automata (karakuri dolls), which were often a public spectacle in Edo Japan. Although karakuri dolls were made to look and act as humanly as possible, no one could be under any impression that they were animate as their creators invariably ensured that their mechanical workings were rendered visible. Correspondingly, clockmakers would peel away any veneer of the occult or mysterious by adjusting time pieces to show their inner mechanisms, thereby providing an analogous, albeit less public, spectacle.

The final chapter looks at the calendrical reform of 1873, which imposed the Gregorian calendar and consigned the system of variable hours to history. Nothing reveals the contingency of time keeping conventions as much as the frustration of those who attempted to explain the new time-keeping practices to an often bewildered populace. Introduction of the new conventions stimulated a proliferation of tables to enable people to ‘translate’ the new time-keeping practices with the ones to which they were most accustomed. As Frumer shows, there was nothing at all obvious about the Western system. Its eventual acceptance was facilitated by machinations on the part of those who sought to heighten the links between these practices and Western numerical systems, which conjured associations with efficiency, sophistication and utility. There was nothing inherently ‘modern’ about the new time, “it was just the kind of time we use in the period we decided to call modernity” (p. 182).

Frumer is to be commended for this highly cogent work in which she calls upon a range of sources including physical objects themselves (many photographs of mechanical clocks and time keeping mechanisms are included in this richly illustrated study) as well as texts, such as manuals and novels from the entire Edo period. In doing so, she critiques the notion that time consciousness was a phenomenon novel to the Meiji period, and convincingly demonstrates that Edo-period Western clocks were not necessarily regarded merely as curios by their owners. However, the most compelling accomplishment of this study is the powerful reminder it provides of the benefit of integrating Western and non-Western histories of technology. Turning a mirror on many taken-for-granted, seemingly obvious practices illuminates their situatedness in the culture from which they emerge.

Ruselle Meade
Lecturer in Japanese Studies
University of Manchester

Primary Sources

Seiko Horological Institute
National Science Museum (Tokyo)
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
Tokyo National Museum
Waseda Online Collection of Chinese and Japanese Classics

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2012. 292 pp. Primary Advisor: Benjamin Elman.


Image: Mechanism of a Japanese Clock, from Hosokawa Hanzo’s 細川半蔵 Karakuri-Zui 機巧図彙 (1796). Wikimedia Commons.