Translating Time: Habits of Western-Style Timekeeping in Late Edo Japan


The act of glancing at a clock to learn the time might seem quick and effortless. Yet for the early-nineteenth-century Japanese, there was nothing obvious about how to read the dial of a European clock. This article explores the ways that Japanese users learned to decipher a technological interface that not only looked significantly different from the ones with which they were familiar, but often contradicted their conventional common sense. The way late-Edo-period (1600–1868) Japanese accessed elements of a foreign technology was through their existing habits of timekeeping—habits of measuring, calculating, and depicting time, as well as handling and looking at timepieces. Understanding how existing practical, material, and visual habits enabled interpretation of foreign technology offers insight into the process of knowledge and technology transfer, which happened prior to the social and structural changes associated with Meiji-period (1868–1912) Westernization.