Japanese Myth Busters: “Japanese People are Always on Time”

About a week ago I gave a presentation on “Time Studies in Japan” to a local club, so it is kind of funny timing that I should spot this article titled The Unspoken Contradictions Behind Japanese Punctuality by Almoamen Abdalla on Nippon.com.

Image result for the white rabbit

My own presentation covered a few of the MANY ways in which Japanese people measure and observe Time. Some of the methods we covered were from Japan’s earliest era up until the 19th/20th century.

During the Q&A part of the presentation, someone commented about Japanese people always being punctual (I was actually about 5 minutes late for the meeting!). My response was, “No way! Punctuality didn’t become a trait of Japanese people until the Meiji era (at the earliest) when things started getting really militarized, only to be refined later in the 20th century with the development of Japan’s marvelous railroad network.”

In short, Japanese punctuality is a 20th century invention.

This article backs-up my response.

For most of Japan’s history and up until the late 19th century, they really didn’t have a method for keeping precise, punctual time–at least not one that was ubiquitous throughout all social classes and in all parts of the country.

Read the article!





“Kurashi no koyomi”–a fantastic gift!

I recently met a friend at a Time studies conference and she gave me an awesome gift–a book called Kurashi no koyomi くらしのこよみ edited by the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute うつくしいくらしかた研究所 and published by Heibonsha 平凡社. The title Kurashi no koyomi basically means “almanac for living” and what the book is is a beautiful guide to the traditional 72 seasons of the year!


Kurashi no koyomi–a Japanese way of “plucking the day,” and I think Horace would agree.

There is an entry for each of the 72 seasons. Each entry has a beautiful photo wonderfully illustrating the micro-season, a brief explanation of the season, a seasonal haiku complimenting it along with an explanation of the haiku, and a short bio of the poet. Following that is a seasonal fish/ seafood, a seasonal vegetable, a seasonal fruit or flower, and any other type of food particular to the time of year. Then finally there is a seasonal “fun” activity–usually something traditionally done every year like, fireworks, cherry blossom viewing, etc.

In the paragraph above I put “fun” in parentheses because one of the activities is “summer rain,” as in going out in the rain or watching the rain. In Japanese it says kisetsu no tanoshimi 季節のたのしみ which means enjoyment of the season. At first I thought, “I really wouldn’t call being out in the rain ‘fun,'” but then I thought it gets so hot and humid here, that yeah, maybe I should embrace the rain and enjoy it. In fact I used to love sitting on my porch at home during rain storms in the summer… 懐かしい.

Here are a few shots of what the book looks like:


(Above) Each entry/chapter is 6 pages long. The season is indicated on the right page (1st page), and a haiku, explanation, and poet bio are on the left (2nd page).


(Above) Next is the seasonal fish (right, 3rd page) and seasonal vegetable (left, 4th page).


(Above) Finally there is a seasonal flower or fruit (right, 5th page) and lastly the seasonal fun activity or enjoyment (left, 6th page).

I’d like to start composing haiku in Japanese more regularly, so this book is going to be a tremendous resource of inspiration. Reading it regularly will also encourage me to stop and smell the roses and not let the days just zoom-by.

Day 07 in Ise…Disrupting the Shintō Tradition

This post is titled “Day 07…” but really it’s the end of week 2! Time flies.

By now I’ve attended many lectures on Shintō 神道 that have covered a wide range of topics. I feel as though two radical changes in the way Shintō has been practiced over the centuries have been detrimental to maintaining “true” Shintō.


This family shrine was probably once in the middle of the rice field they tended–now surrounded by buildings. No rice fields for miles.

Uji-gami 氏神

The first one is when local family shrines were forced to combine to form conglomerate shrines.  For argument’s sake, let’s just call Japan’s native folk religion Shintō.” This form of early Shintō centered on village worship practices focusing on agriculture. Therefore worshiping the kami 神 (deity) associated with the family or village was the center of Shintō traditions. A family, or clan, ruled a particular area and that family’s or that area’s kami was the object of worship. The term for this is uji-gami 氏神 (clan deity). As Japan began establishing itself as a nation, the regions’ powerful families combined and many uji-gami were discarded.

Today what we have in modern Japanese Shintō is not families or villages worshipping their own kami. Instead, what happened at various times in history but (mainly in the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912) is that families and local areas were forced to dismantle their local shrines (in essence, relinquish their ancestral kami) and focus on new larger shrines representing the nation. These larger, newer shrines were established in order to rally the Japanese people around the emperor and the “nation” rather than around their ancestral kami.


Lunar Solar Calendar 太陰太陽暦

The second harmful change to practicing true Shintō is when Shintō officials decided to adopt the western calendar. The result is that annual matsuri 祭り (festivals, rituals) became divorced from the natural agricultural-based seasonal calendar. Shintō and kami worship is intrinsically and undeniably an agricultural based religion. The matsuri were created to be in-sync with the planting season and the lunar-solar calendar, thus bringing harmony between people, the kami, and the seasons. By discarding the lunar-solar calendar, which is deeply connected to the planting cycle, in favor of a western calendar beginning on January 1st,  Shintō officials (who probably live in the middle of Tokyo and don’t know the first thing about rice farming) have essentially eradicated part of what makes  Shintō Shintō.”

The population in rural areas is declining in Japan, just like it is in many countries all over the globe, so revitalizing family and village kami worship would probably be a very daunting task. However, re-claiming the lunar-solar agricultural calendar would be rather easy to do. For example, everyone knows about “Chinese New Year”–well that’s the Shintō New Year, too! But in all my time in Japan  I have never heard of a festival happening at that time of year at a Shintō shrine. (There are thousands of Shintō shrines in Japan, so one of them must have a Lunar New Year festival, I just have not heard of it.)

Modern day Shintō leaders should turn back to the family- and community-centered roots rather than focusing on the country and politics.

Day 03 in Ise…

In my last post I wrote about an example of a change in the Japanese language that was connected with how people think and talk about Time. I wanted to write about another Time related theme that was presented to us: the calendar of Shintō festivals throughout the year. The title of the lecture was Ise Jingū’s festivals (伊勢神宮の祭り) and was given by Matsumoto-sensei (松本丘), a professor of Shintō Studies at Kōgakkan University.

Print of an Edo period (1600-1868) new year’s festival, most likely held in early February. 『江戸砂子年中行事 元旦の図』


To use an example from Catholicism, think of the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar is the yearly timeline of church events: feast days, holy days of observation, Lent, Advent, and others. The liturgical calendar generally runs independent of the official public calendars that we use locally day-to-day. Following the liturgical calendar keeps all churches, parishes, and individuals uniform. It also affects how Catholics conceptualize their day-to-day lives. Not only conceptualize their lives, but it also affects their work life, family life, and the economies in which they participate. So this liturgical calendar (although a fabricated measure of Time) has very real concrete effects in the world in which Catholics live. Similarly there is a calendar of Shintō festivals. There are various Shintō schools and sects (Ise Shintō 伊勢神道, Ryōbu Shintō 両部神道, Watarai Shintō 度会神道, Yoshida Shinō 吉田神道, etc.) but of course the Shintō calendar that we learned about was the Ise Festival Calendar.

A few points about Shintō festivals (matsuri 祭り) to keep in mind:

  • There are about 80,000 Shintō shrines (jinja 神社) in Japan
  • The purposes of Shintō festivals are peace in the Emperor’s household, peace in the Nation, and peace for the People, as well as prosperity for the whole world
  • The festivals are tied to rice cultivation (inasaku 稲作), that is to say Japanese people’s traditional daily activities
  • The festivals are not only observed at shrines, but also privately within people’s homes

A couple points to keep in mind about the Ise Jingū festivals:

  • There are over a thousand matsuri (though not all massive festivals like are seen on TV or in guide books)
  • Ise Jingū’s “Big 3” traditional festivals are in June and December (Tsukinami no matsuri 月次祭) and in October (Kan name no matsuri 神嘗際)

As of about 1873 (Meiji 6) the Shintō sacred year begins on January 1st. The Meiji period (1868-1912) is the time immediately following the 268 years of Japanese self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. When the Meiji period began, Japan began mimicking European and American governance (as well as other things like fashion and other customs) in an attempt to “catch up” with the rest of the developed world. Hence one way of catching up and conforming was by adopting the western calendar (Gregorian calendar).

The Shintō sacred calendar is based on the rice planting season, thus it begins not on January 1st in the dead of winter, but later—around the time of “Chinese New Year,” which is a lunar new year. For example, according to the lunar new year, the Shintō new year and sacred calendar should have started 4 February 2017, a whole 35 days after the western 1 January new year. Speaking from my own observations this year, during the weekend of 4 February this year, the snow in farmlands like Gifu, Aichi, and Shiga (and I’m assuming Mie) had all but melted away. Temperatures were also above freezing, meaning the earth had begun thawing and making it ready for the planting season. A month earlier the fields would have been nowhere near the conditions needed to prepare for the planting season.

I think that if Shintō really wants to preserve Japan’s folk, rice agriculture based traditions (as it claims to do) then discarding the western calendar and reclaiming it’s lunar-solar calendar is a necessity. Government, fiscal, and academic calendars can stay the same—there’s no need for Shintō to follow suit with them.

Day 02 in Ise…

The morning started with sudden hail and then some snow. Luckily when it was time for us to move from the Kōgakkan-kaikan 皇学館会館, where we are staying, to campus the weather had cleared up. We had three presentations today, all in Momofune 百船, which is like their study resource center. The first presentation was about Ise Jingū’s history (伊勢神宮の歴史) and was given by Endō-sensei (遠藤慶太), then about Ise Jingū’s festivals (伊勢神宮の祭り) by Matsumoto-sensei (松本丘), then the last one was about general Ise Jingū & shintō (『遷宮浪漫』解説) background by Mayo-sensei (Christopher M. Mayo).  Endō-sensei’s presentation was really honest and objective, I thought. This might sound surprising, but when you study about things like shintō and the type of national-learning that’s done at Kōgakkan, myth and [sometimes ultra-] nationalism can easily take over. I was really relieved to hear Endō-sensei’s academically sound approach to Ise Jingū’s history. Mayo-sensei’s presentation was also really helpful because he gave a lot of recommended-reading to us and showed us where to find some online sources.

Saitō-sensei giving his talk on Day 02.

Saitō-sensei giving his talk on Day 02.

Two presentations that I want to write about are Matsumoto-sensei’s about Ise Jingū festivals and a presentation from Day 01 by Saitō-sensei (斎藤平) about Japanese and Ise Language (日本語と伊勢言葉). Both of these deal heavily with the notion(s) of Time, which as I’ve written about in other posts, I’ve been considering a lot lately in my own literary research. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write about both, so I’ll write about Saitō-sensei’s, since he went first!

What a Difference a Day Makes

Saitō-sensei is a linguist, so his presentation dealt with changes in Japanese language (locally) over time. The example that he showed us was about how words for tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, etc., changed in other parts of the country, but kind of froze in time in Ise. The result is sometimes confusion between Ise people and people from other parts of the country when talking about upcoming events, making plans, etc.

  Today Tomorrow In two days In three days In four days
Standard Japanese kyō










Ise sasatte




As you can see in the chart, shiasatte in Standard Japanese means in three days, but in Ise it means in four days. This may sound like a minor detail, but it’s indicative of how remote the Ise region was, albeit such a long time ago. The “sa” in Ise’s sasatte used to be written with the character for 3 三 and was pronounced sa, hence “in three days,” and was written as 三明後日 However, more populous, metropolitan parts of the country started writing 明々後日, which is pronounced shiasatte, meaning something like “the next-next day,” but Ise never kept up with the trends in language, or else was stubborn. Meanwhile, yanoasatte came into vogue as a way of saying “in four days” but Ise stuck with shiasatte. The shi in shiasatte means 4. So in Ise they would write the kanji for 3 (sa) and 4 (shi) when referring to “in 3 days” and “in 4 days.” My guess is, if people wrote or read these terms in kanji (not hiragana) there would be no confusion—the confusion comes when they are spoken or heard.

Finally, why did Ise not change to match the current language change? Well there could be two main reasons. One is that since they are geographically isolated from places like Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, they just missed out (just think if Ise was Iowa and Kyoto was New York—New York is where all the trends start, then it takes time for them to catch on in places like Iowa, if they ever catch on at all). The other is that since Ise was thought to be a sacred, historic place they preferred the old ways and purposefully did not adopt the new. This is just a small, small example of how language is connected with perceptions of Time and how language is understood can affect one’s understanding of possible future events.

Black night is not right, I don’t feel so bright…

In April 2015, I had the privileged of participating in a workshop titled “TIMING DAY AND NIGHT: TIMESCAPES IN PREMODERN JAPAN.” The workshop was hosted by the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Cambridge. My topic was on notions of time as described in the Muromachi period 室町時代 literary genre called kōwakamai 幸若舞, specifically in the libretto Fushimi Tokiwa 伏見常盤.

Prior to preparing and participating in this workshop I had not considered “Time” as a research theme. However the workshop was really quite interesting and I learned a lot from the other participants. I feel kind of disappointed that I had not been exposed to this type of topic before, but it’s really within the realm of anthropology, a field in which none of my graduate school professors really were a part. (I’d say they were coming from fields like general religious studies, Buddhist studies, poetics, linguistics, history, and thr like. No anthro!)

This past year I’ve been seeing articles on line related to Time Studies everywhere from RocketNewsJapan to the BBC. Here’s the latest one that I found on Aeon.co. I really love this site! The articles and videos are really smart and well done.

This article, “How the 24-hour society is stealing time from the night,” touches on a lot of the topics that were indeed brought up at the Cambridge Timescapes workshop. Take for example the first couple examples that Kreitzman gives: Burmese monks know that it is time to get up when it is light enough to see the veins in their hands; and  Muslims base their getting up on the passage in the Quran that defines daybreak as the time when it is possible to distinguish between a dark and a light thread. These methods may work locally when the community is really close knit and are limited to a geographic region, but as soon as the community goes global, these methods for telling time are no longer really viable.

Concerning the examples above, another issue is that depending on where you are in relationship to the equator, day and night either lengthen or shorten, making Time elastic.

I’ve limited my blog time to 30 minutes, so I’ll end here…


**The title of this post is from a… Deep Purple song! Titled “Black Night” (Did you know that already?!) which I was just listening to this morning. There are hundreds and hundreds of songs about Time and concepts of Day & Night, so in a way Time-studies is very much a part of pop-culture. Keep your ears open.**

Here are the rest of the lyrics, courtesy of a Google search:

Black night is not right,
I don’t feel so bright,
I don’t care to sit tight.
Maybe I’ll find on the way down the line
that I’m free, free to be me.
Black night is a long way from home.
I don’t need a dark tree,
I don’t want a rough sea,
I can’t feel, I can’t see.
Maybe I’ll find on the way down the line
that I’m free, free to be me.
Black night is a long way from home.
Black night, black night,
I don’t need black night,
I can’t see dark night.
Maybe I’ll find on the way down the line
that I’m free, free to be me.
Black night is a long way from home.