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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:

election anxiety countdown

61 Days: Workday

“On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Adamson Act, which established an eight-hour workday, with additional pay for overtime work, for railroad workers.”

The Opportunity Agenda

“…as late as a century and a half ago [from 1995] the Japanese day was not divided into twenty-four hours. Instead it was broken down into six equal periods whose lengths varied according to the seasons of the year. Even after they were imported, in the sixteenth century, Western clocks had to be mechanically adjusted to suit the old system of time.”

—Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture

I’ve been working from home for a long time. Years before this Covid-19 quarantine. The promise of working from home is that you have unlimited freedom. You can schedule your day however you like, you can work from a beach hut in Aruba (if travel to Aruba is allowed).

Like a lot of workaholic tech bros and desk-chained jet fuel fetishists, I read Tim Ferriss’ fantasy memoir The 4-Hour Workweek. I did the math on dental holidays in Vietnam and Indian virtual assistants, but I couldn’t get it to add up.

That’s not entirely true. I do work just four hours some weeks — if “work” doesn’t count the work of creative writing and art-making and reading and learning and exploring the random ideas I might incorporate in to some creative project one day. Art doesn’t work on a railroad worker’s schedule.

Work for my paying clients comes in waves. Several projects might have deadlines the same week. Several clients might take December off.

The problem is that I can’t pay my bills if too many of those four-hour workweeks stack up. So I structure my day around the traditional nine to five, even when I don’t have a lot of work to do. I get up early to write before I feel guilt over not answer my clients’ workday emails. I put away my writing and focus on paying projects around 9 or 10 a.m. I rest midday with lunch and books or podcasts.

I quit around 5 or 6 p.m. and shift thoughts to fun and friends and distractions and dinner.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had a real 8-hour workday — at least not for more than a few weeks at a temp job. When I worked in politics and advocacy campaigns, the business hours were nine to five, but the culture was more like 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Working less showed you weren’t committed to the cause.

When I worked in coffee shops and restaurants, the hours were highly irregular: four hours one day, ten hours the next. Sometimes I was looking for a forty-hour workweek and couldn’t get it. Other times I had two or three jobs. Twenty hours at an art gallery, ten at a restaurant, six in an odd job cleaning up a new gallery space or designing a website.

With unemployment skyrocketing and more and more jobs being automated, will there be eight hours of work, five days a week, for all who want them? As it stands, those with connections and schooling and privilege can get high-pressure jobs that demand sixty or eighty hours per week. Those without used to be able to cobble together two or three ten- and twenty-hour low-wage jobs to work the fifty or sixty hours needed to get by. What would it look like if the sixty hours at the high pay, high-pressure job were split in to two jobs? What would it look like if low-wage workers could get by on thirty hours instead of sixty?