Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (113): It’s about that time!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 25, 2010

EVERY COUNTRY seems to fill its calendar with commemorative days, weeks, and months that most people never know exist, or would never care about if they did know. In the United States, for example, June is both National Polka Month and Bath Safety Month. The second week of June was Law Enforcement Training Week and School Guard Crossing Week. The 16th was National Fudge Day, the 14th was Blood Type Awareness Day (that’s every day in Japan), and the 10th was American Log Cabin Day.

In Japan, meanwhile, the 10th was set aside as the day to commemorate time. Unlike American Log Cabin Day, it did not pass by unnoticed, particularly by the folks in Otsu, Shiga. They did what comes naturally to the Japanese—they had a festival!

That event was the Rokokusai, or Water Clock Festival, held at the Omi-jingu, a local Shinto shrine. As the jingu name suggests, this shrine is associated with the Imperial household, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of the Tenchi Tenno (emperor). He was number 38 and lived in the seventh century. In contrast, the shrine itself is relatively new—it was built in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial reign, dating back to the legendary first Tenno, Jimmu.

The reason they got all excited about water clocks is that the Tenchi Tenno introduced the use of those timekeepers to Japan 1,340 years ago. Several of those clocks and other historical timepieces are on display in a museum on the shrine grounds. Naturally, the local timepiece manufacturers take a special interest in the shrine and this event. They each donated a sample of their new products to the shrine for presentation to the divinity with a prayer for the prosperous growth of their industry.

The festival included a performance of kagura, or Shinto song and dance, and there was a procession with 400 people. The photo shows some of those participating in the procession presenting the donated timepieces to the divinity. They’re dressed in the manner of uneme, which means “selected women”. During the Heian period (794-1185), they were chosen from a nationwide talent pool—probably for their timeless good looks—to be court attendants and serve the Tenno at table. This was a formal role, though they likely did not serve the Tenno in other ways that some of you lecherous types are probably thinking about. He had official concubines to handle that aspect of his life.

Because the Japanese Tenno has primarily been a religious figure, the uneme were considered to have a religious role, and they were also his personal property. Therefore, violating an uneme was a serious breach of the law that was severely punished as one of the “eight abominable crimes”.

Watching attractive women in period costume carry around clocks might not ring most people’s chimes, but one participant saw it differently:

When I sat inside the quiet shrine precincts with the guardian deity for time, I reflected on how much time I’ve wasted. I hope to live my life hereafter with a real sense of the importance of time.

Tenchi’s water clocks sounded the passage of time with a bell, but some later timepieces used a boom. On Time Day this year, Kadoya Shoji of Nagaoka, Niigata, displayed a taiko drum clock that he recreated based on an original model dating from 1793 now in the collection of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo (link on right sidebar). The interior of that clock is hollow, however, and how it worked is a mystery. There are no surviving designs, so Mr. Kadoya, who repairs timepieces for a living, had to come up with some ideas on his own.

His task was complicated because Japan used what is known as the temporal time system during the Edo period. Instead of dividing a day into 24 equal periods of 60 minutes each, the period from dawn to dusk was split into six equal intervals, as was the period from dusk to dawn. Therefore, the operation of the clocks varied from month to month. The period of daylight is longer than the night in summer, but that’s reversed in winter. Thus the “hours” progressively grew longer until this time of year (this week in fact), when they began growing shorter.

This manner of timekeeping was used until 1873, when the Japanese government adopted the Western method of using equal hours with no seasonal variation, as well as the Gregorian calendar.

Mr. Kadoya contrived a system with two scales – one for day and one for night—and used lead weights to operate it. He said it was difficult to create the mechanism for the automatic switch from the daytime scale to the one used at night. The weights are raised and readjusted once a day. The clock itself is 108 centimeters high (3.54 feet), 45 centimeters in diameter, and 20 centimeters thick. In addition to the drum beat signaling the hours, a bell sounds at the equivalent of noon. A mechanical bird attached to the upper part of the drum also moves at midday, in accordance with contemporary accounts of the original drum.

He’s been at this quite a while; Mr. Kadoya first repaired a Japanese clock 35 years ago at the request of a customer. That piqued his interest, and he has repaired more than 200 since then.

Asking someone for the time of day is usually a simple matter, but Mr. Kadoya might have a more complicated answer. You should specify the century first!


For a photo of the face of an older Japanese clock, plus more details on their operation, try this post on the website of novelist Gina Collia-Suzuki.

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2 Responses to “Matsuri da! (113): It’s about that time!”

  1. NanatsuYoru said

    What I find is that a lot of these commemorative days aren’t widely celebrated because there’s nothing to tell its nearby residents its happening. I for one have absolutely no idea there’s days to celebrate other than Christmas, New Year, and the Chinese New Year in my area, but once in a while fireworks go off somewhere and I’m left thinking just what I seem to have missed.

    Sort of unrelated question, but are there any festivals that are held in July in the Tokyo regions?
    N: Thanks for the note. Plug in the words Tokyo, July, festival, and matsuri into a search engine and things pop up. You could also call the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) and ask.

    – A.

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