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60 Days: Temple Bells

Yesterday I dropped a quote about the traditional Japanese time system. I was curious to learn more. The system splits a day in to six units of daylight and six units of night:

The typical clock had six numbered hours from nine to four, which counted backwards from noon until midnight; the hour numbers one, two and three were not used in Japan for religious reasons, because these numbers of [temple chime] strokes were used by Buddhists to call to prayer. The count ran backwards because the earliest Japanese artificial timekeepers used the burning of incense to count down the time. Dawn and dusk were therefore both marked as the sixth hour in the Japanese timekeeping system. In addition to the numbered temporal hours, each hour was assigned a sign from the Japanese zodiac.


In a time before electrification, it makes sense that you’d have to pack in all of your daily rituals into the hours the sun was up. So, a gentle reminder that 1/6th of the daylight had passed would be a good nudge to keep moving in winter. In the summer, the comparatively spread-out time between each tolling of a temple bell might be a comforting. Then again in pre-electric Japan, I imagine there is much to be done in the summer months.

Still. I like the idea of the flexible hour, the stretching of time. It mirrors the way time feels. It seems to flow differently from one moment to the next: fast when you’re enjoying yourself or the company you keep; slow when you’re impatient, bored, waiting; slow when you’re young; fast when you’re old.

But if you were to start to think of every day as having six chunks of time, would you even notice the difference? You might get more done in summer than in winter, but the passage of time would always be six. There would be no winter days when it is dark at five. No summer nights when light stretches past nine.

Mechanical clocks that mimicked Japan’s variable hour clock proved difficult to create. As western-style mechanical clocks came to Japan, the simplest solution was to provide twelve different face rings — one marking off the daylight in each month of the year. But beautiful mechanical clocks built to tell traditional Japanese time — known as wadokei — did became both an engineering challenge and an art form.

Images: Wikipedia

It would be much simpler to create a variable-hour clock today without burning incense or resorting to custom brass springs and weights. In fact, the “dynamic desktop” feature of MacOS, effectively does this by cycling through photos of an identical scene based on the daylight at your location on Earth at the present time of year. But could we live by this clock?

It is hard to escape the thinking of time as fixed. I’m tempted to map my 6:10 a.m. breakfast, 5:20 p.m. quitting time, and 10:30 (sometime) bedtime on to six day-parts. But that would miss the point. Variable time is a time that is dictated by nature and the seasons rather than precision and productivity routines. Agriculture and survival were once tied to these forces in a way that shaped every choice made during daylight and darkness. With the internet in your pocket and regular communication with friends in a dozen time zones, it would be near impossible to live strictly by divisions of local daylight. The Metrobus schedule, the restaurants and construction workers outside my window would be hard to bring on board with my scheme, and their sounds are the temple bells that let me know when to work and when to rest.

I’m also now recalling William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, an installation I stumbled upon when it was at SFMOMA in 2017. It concerns, among other things, the importation of western time to Africa, and the human body as a clock wound up and counting down to the end of its time. You can measure out the next twenty five minutes and thirteen seconds as a fractional portion of your daylight hours, while Kentridge discusses the work in this video:

Thanks for reading!

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