Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 26, 2012

Variable Time - Daimyo Clock Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

Nezu lies adjacent to Yanaka, on the inside of the ring of the Yamanote line, and is an area where still some traces of an older Tokyo can be found. It is famous for the Nezu Shrine, which has beautiful azaleas in late April-early May.

Within easy walking distance from the Nezu subway station on the Chiyoda line, you will find the Daimyo Clock Museum. The small facility stands a short walk from Nezu station in a typical neighborhood which still retains the flavor of former days, with small homes in back alleys hidden behind stacks of potted plants.

What is more fitting for a clock museum than a neighborhood where time, if not standing still, at least seems to go more slowly? The museum sits in a walled garden where vegetation runs wild and quaint old statues peep out from between the weeds.

The museum is in fact not more than one room full with about 50 so-called daimyo clocks. Inspired by Western clocks brought into Japan from the late 16th c., daimyo clocks were attuned to the reality that time in the Edo-period was flexible.

The name was devised by the founder of the present museum, because the daimyo or feudal barons were the only ones allowed to own these clocks during the Edo-period. A more general name is wa-dokei, Japanese clocks.

Daimyo Clock Museum
[Entrance to the Daimyo Clock Museum. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Museum founder Kamiguchi Guro (1892-1970) originally had a clothing store in this neighborhood, but was consumed by the passion for daimyo clocks which he sought out in the whole country in order to preserve and study them. His interests were continued by his son, Kamiguchi Hitoshi, who established the present museum in 1972. For a small price the museum sells a typewritten pamphlet in English that gives an excellent explanation of these clocks. As the labels in the museum are only in Japanese it is a good idea to sit down on one of the benches provided and first read the brochure.

You will learn that daimyo clocks were made after European ‘lantern clocks’ with escapement, the first of which was given by the missionary Xavier to a Kyushu daimyo. The best daimyo clocks were produced in the first decades of the 19th c.

As they were only made for a small group of people, who used them as a symbol of wealth rather than as pieces to accurately measure time, they never developed into the practical instruments the European models were. Before Japan adopted the solar calendar in 1872, the hours of the day and night differed in length according to the season. These hours were named after the animals of the Chinese zodiac and you will find those characters on the clock face. For measuring non-standard time, various ingenious devices were used. One was to vary the speed of the clockwork movement by small weights on the escapement balance, the other to adjust the position of the numerals (the zodiacal characters) on the clock face. In this last type of clock, interestingly, the hand was stationary and the clock face rotated.

In short, these clocks needed a lot of attention, but the daimyo after all had their servants for such chores. And as they were status symbols, it often was the decoration of the clocks that was more important than accurate timekeeping.As you will see around you in the museum, Japanese clocks come in many forms. The classical form is the square clock with escapement on top, resembling the European lantern clock, mounted on top of a stand shaped like a tower and therefore called yagura-dokei or ‘turret clocks.’

The museum owns several imposing specimens of this type. There were also makura-dokei or ‘mantel clocks,’ put in the decorative niche of the living room and therefore smaller but very luxurious in design. ‘Ruler clocks’ (shaku-dokei) could be hung on pillars as they were oblong and narrow; and ‘seal-case clocks’ (Inro-dokei) were modeled after European pocket watches.
Tel. 03-3821-6913

Hours:10:00-16:00. Cl Mon, summer (7/1-9/30), NY (12/25-1/14)

Access:10 min on foot from Nezu St on the Chiyoda subway line or 15 min from JR Nippori St