The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 23, 2000
'Art and Soul

Measuring time in Japan
By B.N. Goswamy

UNDER the simple, but intriguing, title: "Japan Time", the British Museum in London held a special exhibition in its Japanese galleries when I was there a few weeks ago. "Clocks, the Zodiac and Picture Calendars", is how the exhibition was sub-titled. The collection of Japanese art which that museum houses is stunning, but this show promised something even more, and was very sharply focussed. I was interested in observing the contrast between the traditional methods of measuring time in Japan —informed as they always were by the Buddhist concept of an ultimate reality beyond time — and the new, mechanical time of clocks that were copied from Europe, once the land opened itself up to the outside world in the 19th century.

There were, on display, a few things I anticipated seeing, and knew a little about on my own. Mysterious mandalas, for instance, hinting at the continuous cycles of birth and re-birth of the buddhas who are perfect beings and, therefore, beyond time itself; or representations, in dazzlingly painted scrolls, of the twelve ‘zodiacal’ animals — dragon, tiger, ox, hare, and the like — that symbolise the changing cycles of time. But there were things here that I knew virtually nothing about. Among them were picture calendars the production of which was carefully controlled by the state, after the calendar was reformed in the 17th century and the objects started becoming standard gift items for playful, even erotic, exchanges at the time of new year. And, then, there were all those mechanical clocks that came in the wake of the contact with the West.

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A worker repairing a turret clock. Japan, 19th CThe passage to new ways of measuring and keeping time, was not easy in Japan. There were cultural conflicts and much initial confusion. The Gregorian calendar, departing as it did from the lunar and the solar calendars followed for centuries in Japan, had already been introduced by Jesuit missionaries when they arrived there. But there are accounts of the reform of the calendar, and of methods of measuring time, becoming a part of the political struggle that raged between the powerful shoguns and the imperial court from the seventeenth century onwards. One thing is certain, traditional devices known from very early times to the Japanese like the water clocks — there are reports of one being in use in 682 AD — the sun-dials and incense clocks, were destined to disappear gradually when the new mechanical clocks came in. The first of these clocks, weight-driven like those in use at that time in Europe, is said to have been taken to Japan in about 1550 by St. Francis Xavier, who gifted it to the Governor of Yamaguchi province. This seems to have led to a whole new industry springing up, for the clock was soon copied by skilled Japanese craftsmen. However, rarity and expense was to mark these clocks for a length of time, yet. They could be possessed only by the rich and the powerful and hence became status symbols. The common folk still measured time as handed down to them by feudal authorities — by keeping their ears out for the sounds that came from the palaces or temples, listening to public bell-towers or drum-beats.

The show had some superbly-crafted clocks from this period, and, of course, works of art in which clocks figured: A print featuring flamboyantly dressed courtesans, with a clock occupying a little corner somewhere at the back; a painting with a clock figuring prominently among the objects filling a ‘period room’, with the figure of a land-baron looming over it; there was even a 19th century print showing a clocksmith repairing, or cleaning, a tall clock, his tools lying by his side. But the clocks would have been easy to miss in these paintings and prints, if one did not know, from the distinguished examples shown, something about what they looked like in reality. For what was originally European had, in the hands of local craftsmen, turned

into something very Japanese. There were, thus, weight-driven ‘turret clocks’, also called ‘lantern clocks’ because of the distinctive, rounded shape of the bell placed atop; ‘pillow clocks’, spring-driven but so named because their squat shape resembled a traditional Japanese pillow; and ‘pillar clocks’, which were hung on wooden interior pillars.

One was reminded of the often made statement that the genius of Japan lies not in originality, but in taking an idea, or object, and refining it to the point of perfection.

Showing matters

Reading from the text panels which accompanied the Japan Time show, that mechanical clocks were seen initially as "luxurious possessions rather than useful instruments", I was reminded of all those Company-style paintings from India in which the painters brought in, grandiosely, representations of clocks on the walls of royal chambers, but were never able to get the hands of the clock to make any sense, or tell real time. Or of those early group photographs in which young men stood with arms folded, but sleeve-cuffs slyly pulled back to reveal a glimpse of a watch proudly worn on the wrist.

An uncle of mine used to tell, referring to his years as a young lawyer in west Punjab, of a classmate of his, a scion of an affluent Muslim landed family, who had managed to get a wrist watch for himself, ahead of everyone else in the small town. The trouble was that he could not read the time it showed, and would come, every now and then, to my uncle, pull back his sleeve, show the watch and ask, in Punjabi: "Gusainji! ke vatak hay?"

This feature was published on July 16, 2000