skip to content

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies


The project will attempt an anthropological history of ‘timescapes’ in the everyday life of premodern Japan. The tenor of previous research has been that new values of Time such as punctuality and the equation of time with money, were introduced into Meiji Japan (1868-1912) following the adoption of the Gregorian calendar and western 24-hour system during industrialisation in the nineteenth century.

However, we know little about earlier Japanese timescapes – that is, orderings of time which encompassed all aspects of social life. (Research on time usually deals with clocks, transience, calendars and seasons or is limited in scope).  How did their understanding of time prepare the Japanese for fast industrialization, centralization, and modernization? How radical a change did this represent? What were the social and regional differences throughout premodern history? The rapid rate at which the Japanese nation adopted ‘modern’ time structures suggests that the way may have been paved by the practices and consciousness of the premodern period. This project will investigate in what ways this might have been the case.

Moreover, our project has the potential to challenge theoretical assumptions of Time research in Europe and the US, as Japan’s trajectory of time consciousness was in various ways crucially different from Western examples. The history of Time in Europe has been focused on the influence of the mechanical clock and how clock time has conquered all aspects of life. From this, scholars have drawn the conclusion that the introduction of the mechanical clock inevitably changed our time awareness from temporal time that closely mirrored the ‘natural’ rhythm of day and night to equinoctial ‘clock’ time. (In temporal time the duration from sunrise to sunset is divided into hours of equal length, which vary depending on the season, whereas equinoctial hours have constant length.) This shift has come to be seen as inevitable.

Our preliminary findings on Japan indicate, however, that there is no such inevitability to the history of time, nor has there necessarily been a linear development from temporal hours to equinoctial hours as a result of the mechanical clock. Equinoctial time was adopted and used in Japan for court activities even in antiquity, but with the decline of influence of the Heian imperial court, temporal time became prevalent, even on an official level. When the mechanical clock was introduced into Japan from Europe in the sixteenth century, this did not lead to people following its dictates; rather, they adapted the mechanical clock to measure and announce temporal hours. Why was this the case, and why did Japan represent a different development?

In our project, we want to move away from a history of time that takes an external perspective coloured by hindsight. We will therefore take an ethnographic, emic approach, describing time from the perspective of the people who lived in the time period and how they themselves made sense of time indicators. Contemporary sources, such as diaries, fiction, chronicles, educational literature and illustration will be used to do this. Our preliminary research suggests this approach will lead to the discovery of a whole range of new questions.

Such a study of how daily life is timed can shed light on values including work ethics, lifestyles, and belief systems and provides clear and crucial insight for an understanding of the daily lives and identities as well as power relations of different social groups. What was the influence of the court or of Buddhist temples on timescapes both within and without the palace/temple walls? How did people make appointments and how did they integrate diverse, and perhaps contradictory time indicators into organising their social activities? Which time indicators did they use? Were these time indicators different in different periods and for different social classes or genders? Do we find different notions of time in different kinds of sources of the same time? How were the lives of the merchants and their employees organised in terms of time in the home, the workplace and the pleasure quarters. What about the farmers? What did it mean to be on time for them, why (and for whom) did they wait or let someone wait? Did people manipulate time and how? Did they value time and in what way?

In 2015, a workshop, in collaboration with the Japanese Society of Time Studies and Yamaguchi Time Research Institute,  took place as part of the project.