New Times in Modern Japan

New Times in Modern Japan

New Times in Modern Japan

New Times in Modern Japan


New Times in Modern Japan concerns the transformation of time--the reckoning of time--during Japan's Meiji period, specifically from around 1870 to 1900. Time literally changed as the archipelago synchronized with the Western imperialists' reckoning of time. The solar calendar and clock became standard timekeeping devices, and society adapted to the abstractions inherent in modern notions of time. This set off a cascade of changes that completely reconfigured how humans interacted with each other and with their environment--a process whose analysis carries implications for other non-Western societies as well.

By examining topics ranging from geology, ghosts, childhood, art history, and architecture to nature as a whole, Stefan Tanaka explores how changing conceptions of time destabilized inherited knowledge and practices and ultimately facilitated the reconfiguration of the archipelago's heterogeneous communities into the liberal-capitalist nation-state, Japan. However, this revolutionary transformation--where, in the words of Lewis Mumford, "the clock, not the steam engine," is the key mechanism of the industrial age--has received little more than a footnote in the history of Japan.

This book's innovative focus on time not only shifts attention away from debates about the failure (or success) of "modernization" toward how individuals interact with the overlay of abstract concepts upon their lives; it also illuminates the roles of history as discourse and as practice in this reconfiguration of society. In doing so, it will influence discussions about modernity well beyond the borders of Japan.


Morse in Japan remains what he has been all his life—a man
locked in a silent struggle with time, one whose days are filled
with a pursuit of practical truths that can be shared with a
world hungry to understand itself.

—Robert A. Rosenstone (1998)

We are quite familiar with the Meiji period as one of considerable transformation of all aspects of life on the archipelago. But its characterization as a move from old to new—as simply exiting from its self-incurred immaturity—obscures the historicity of modernity, that process described above by Rosenstone: a “pursuit of practical truths” for a “world hungry to understand itself.” Several steps are necessary to begin that process: first, the idea of immaturity suggests that one's present society is incomplete and living in the past. in other words, there is a recognition of a progressive time and a separation of pasts from present. Second, one must recognize that the world of inadequacy is man-made, not because of a degeneration from some originary ideal, but because of the artificial constructions posed by such primitive ideas and institutions. and third, any attempt to explain this level is dependent upon a different configuration of the whole, a “struggle with time.” Now, inherited ideas and men that were the subject of chronicles became the past, which reflected recognition that the aristocratic system is not natural or endowed but anachronistic. These discoveries occurred in Europe from the late medieval period to the nineteenth century. During the Tokugawa period, intellectuals began the separation of humans from nature (rangaku) and the formulation of an alternate origin (kokugaku). But this discovery of the past and its separation from the present occurred principally during the Meiji period.

The discovery and separation of the past is one of the central components of the Meiji period. in early Meiji, various practices and ideas that had been connected with the Tokugawa era became the objects from which society would be emancipated. But unlike previous reform efforts, improvement would come through something new rather than a restoration of an ideal located in some pure originary moment. But this transformation of the conceptual order must

the specific periodization depends on who one is reading and which objects and transformations
are described. See, for example, the essays in Bender and Wellbery (1991); Toulmin and Goodfield
(1965); Koselleck (1985); and de Certeau (1988).

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