The History of Japanese Time Keeping

The History of Japanese Time Keeping

                      ANCIENT TIMEKEEPING OF JAPAN


Timekeeping in Japan started with primitive sun dials on which time was measured by a gnomon (upright stick) which cast a shadow on the ground.  At night knotted ropes were burned to keep time.  Later, fuel clocks of oil, candle and incense were used.  Incense clocks (Koban-dokei) were in existence longest as they were operated by Shinto priests in the various temples and shrines around the country.  The incense clock consisted of a large box containing a layer of ash on which incense powder was poured though a wooden stencil to form a pattern corresponding to six measurable hours.  They were far from accurate.  The incense would burn inconsistently, affected by draughts and the quality of the incense which was not always uniform.  In addition, the novice priests in charge of the clocks were not always as diligent as they might have been.  A few water clocks were constructed and were more accurate than the fuel clocks but never gained popularity mainly due to the freezing Japanese winters which made it impossible for them to function for several months of the year.

Mechanical clocks were not seen in China or Japan until the Jesuit priests visited in the years 1550-1555.  The first record of a European clock in Japan was the one which Francisco Xavier presented to the Governor of Yamaguchi in Suwa in 1551.  This gift, from the Portuguese Viceroy of India, was made in order to obtain an agreement granting the Jesuits permission to teach and practice the Roman Catholic religion in that district.  It was most likely a small striking lantern clock, with verge escapement and weight driven, available and popular at that time throughout Europe.  In 1591 Hideyoshi Toyotomi was given a clock from the four Japanese Christian Samurai of Kyushu who travelled to Europe for an audience with the Pope.

Though the above two clocks are no longer in existence a clock is preserved in the Toshugu Shrine in Shizuoka which was presented in 1612 to Leyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, by an envoy from the Governor of Mexico.  This is the oldest clock existing in Japan and was made of brass, is eight inches high and is fitted with a spring driven iron movement.

European clocks were mostly imported into Japan by Jesuit missionaries both for their own use and as gifts for the Shogun and the nobility.  As was the custom in Europe, some priests were skilled in clockmaking.  For a period of about 30 years, ending in 1612, not only did they make clocks, but taught their trade to Japanese blacksmiths in Kyushu and Kyoto.  These blacksmiths incorporated Japans ancient system of timekeeping into new mechanical clocks giving rise to the first Daimyo clocks which began to appear from around 1612.  They were not originally known as Daimyo clocks but logically this name was coined as only the Daimyo, or nobles, could afford to buy them and employ a permanent clockmaker or time doctor to make the necessary daily and seasonal adjustments.  These mechanical clocks which used the ancient Japanese system of timekeeping are known collectively as Wa Dokei.  The European-type clocks kept Equinoctial time so had to be changed to keep Temporal hours.



The Temporal system of timekeeping originated in Babylonia.  The animal names given to the hours were to come from India via China.  The twelve animals connected with Buddha (563BC-483BC, born eleven years before Confucius) were used in India for fortune and character telling.  In China they were soon put to other uses, firstly to map out territories and then to count the years, the seasons and eventually to name the hours of the day.  There is a legend which is often recounted to children in Japan about Buddhas animals which came to pay respect at his death in 483BC.

The animals were placed in the same order in which Buddha had observed them under the Bho tree in his twelve years of meditation.  The only change which has taken place in two thousand years is that Thailand replaced the hare (extinct there) with the cat.  The dragon, the only mythical animal on the scale, was the gavial (a kind of crocodile).  The Chinese and the Japanese have 28 constellations in their celestial dials, not twelve.  Equinoctial time was kept by China and in Japan only by astronomers and scientists.  The Japanese populace used temporal hours.  The day was divided into twelve, six daylight hours and six hours of darkness.   The daylight hours would start at dawn and end at dusk.  Thus a daylight hour was longer in summer than in winter and an hour would vary as the seasons progressed.

Incense clocks, as we have seen, were the main method for measuring time in Japan.  To this timekeeping system they added a method of ringing bells.  At first six bells were used, one for each hour, but later in the Asuka period in the 6th Century AD, complications arose since one, two and three bells were used to summon the faithful to prayer and other religious ceremonies.  The art of writing came to Japan at the same time as Buddhism.  During this period one, two and three bells were used for prayer and four to nine bells were used to peel the six hours.  The highest number (nine) was adopted for noon and midnight, corresponding to the sun at its highest and lowest points in the day (just as in western timekeeping).  However, the Japanese then counted the hours backwards from nine to four. 

Many theories have been put forward to explain this peculiarity of Japanese bell ringing for the hours.  At that time there were no mechanical clocks in Japan.  Fuel clocks, which reduced matter by fire, were the only means of telling the time.  The only way the priests could correctly ring the bells was to see how much matter was left.  This was true both of incense clocks and candle clocks and the Japanese people were so used to this system that they carried it over to mechanical clocks.  It is interesting to note that some early clepsydras or water clocks in the Pamir region, north of India, were graduated with a high number indicating a full bowl which decreased as the bowl emptied.  Japanese count in this way with the hand fully open to start, then showing four fingers for one, three fingers for two and so on until a closed hand represents five.



The Japanese were particularly good at working metals and this made them ideal clockmakers.  The first recorded clockmaker was a clever blacksmith by the name of Tsuda Sukezaemon Masayuki now known as the father of Japanese clockmaking.  He was the founder of a flourishing clock industry in Nagasaki, which spread to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, all of which became great centres of Japanese horology.  Another famous clockmaker was Hirota Riemon whose sons succeeded him right up to the Meiji Restoration. 

In 1796 an important document was published by Hosokawa Hanzo which gives us a vivid insight into clockmaking, automatons and various dials used by the Japanese up to that date.  In 1840, Kobayashi Denjiro specialised in making musical bracket clocks.  From 1800 many clocks were fitted with mainsprings, rather than weights.  All these early clockmakers were faced with the problem of adapting the complicated Japanese time system to a mechanism originally designed for western or standard timekeeping.  This they did extremely well.  The clocks we have inherited are all masterpieces and are beautiful works of art.



In 1873 the Meiji Decree eliminated all these wonderful clocks and watches in one fell swoop.  The Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of the Monarchy.  Japan threw herself open to western influences but it was not until 1 January 1873, after seven frustrating years, that Emperor Meiji was able to issue a decree whereby Japan was to abandon its ancient and complicated method of time measurement and adapt the simplified European system.  All existing clocks and timepieces became obsolete and had to be converted or destroyed.  Before the Restoration the problems of measuring and dividing time presented untold problems for Japanese clockmakers who responded, particularly during the 19th century, with a variety of design and artistic execution unrivalled in the Western world.

In general all pure Japanese Tokugawa clocks use the verge escapement, commencing with the single foliot; followed by the double foliot; then back to the single foliot with a special device incorporating the strike system.  The pendulum then appeared, followed by the balance wheel and finally the balance wheel with hairspring all using the same verge escapement.  These escapements appeared about 70 years later than their European counterparts.  Western books tend to date Japanese clocks much later and yet woodblock prints prove them to be earlier.

The Jesuit priests taught Japanese blacksmiths to make clocks from approximately 1560.  These clocks had Western dials with 24 hour markers, as was common in Portugal, Spain and Italy.  This had no connection with the Japanese temporal hour system and was not accepted by the Japanese however much the priests encouraged their use.

The earliest pure Japanese clock found so far is dated 1611 though most of the clocks date from about 1620-1873, when the Japanese finally changed to standard time.

Most lantern clocks (Yagura and Makura) could only be afforded by the Daimyo or barons as the cost of a clock equated to a years salary.  Furthermore a clock doctor had to be employed to look after the clock and give the correct time daily.  The clocks needed to be adjusted twice daily and again every two weeks unless they were fitted with the special device on the strike to eliminate the daily resetting.

Photos of Japanese Lantern Clocks to follow.