The birth of tardiness, or the origins of time discipline in modern Japan

People's day-to-day perceptions of time have gradually evolved over the centuries, from ancient times up to the present.
Since the advent of the modern era our perceptions of time have altered significantly.
Our time consciousness is deeply influenced by the culture, civilization and society of the era.

Utagawa Kuniteru, Tomioka Silk-spinning Mill in Joshu. In the collection of Tomioka City Museum/Fukuzawa Ichiro Memorial Gallery.

Utagawa Kuniteru, Tomioka silk-spinning mill in Joshu
In the collection of Tomioka City Museum/Fukuzawa Ichiro Memorial Gallery.

Willem Huyssen van Kattendijke, a naval engineer employed by the Shogunate at the end of the Tokugawa period, once complained that Japanese people were never punctual. I found this complaint to be quite puzzling; after all, in modern Japan the commuter trains run to the second and home deliveries of goods are made the day after an order is received and at a pre-designated time. If it was truly the case that Japanese society in the mid-19th century was so inexact in terms of time-keeping, how is it that in the little more than a century-and-a-half since then the Japanese people have come to be so punctual?

In the past I organized a program of joint research on this issue, which resulted in the publication of a collection of essays entitled Chikoku no Tanjo (The Birth of Tardiness). Most of these essays discussed systems that had been introduced to Japan during the Meiji period, such as railroads, factories and schools, and how these systems and structures brought about a more disciplined approach to time. Professor Jun Suzuki of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences wrote about the rules on working hours that were created for government-owned factories during the Meiji period and how these rules evolved over time. Professor Naofumi Nakamura of the Institute of Social Science contributed a piece about the introduction of time discipline arising from the operation of national railways, detailing the background to the gradual formation of time discipline, its concept and reality, including a list of railway accidents and penalties for professional negligence.

I myself focused on the introduction of principles of scientific management to Japan, studying the actions of key persons at the time and providing an explanation of how such principles were perceived in Japan, where time discipline, a requisite for any scientific principles, had yet to become the norm. I also quoted another person's statement that while "Time is money" is not inaccurate, it is probably more fitting to say "Time is life." Around the time when the clouds of war were appearing on the horizon, this was a phrase that came to be used. It was also the phrase that I used, as one of the organizers of the joint research, to summarize the collection of essays.

I would like to share here a little of the background about how this joint research came to be. The complaints of van Kattendijke were actually brought to my attention by the historian of technology Professor Tetsuro Nakaoka. We were both attending a symposium on the history of the modernization of Japan and I was giving a presentation on the topic of "standards," noting that prior to the war the nation had been constantly urged to make effective use of time. Professor Nakaoka pointed out that this focus on promoting time consciousness was something that could actually be traced back to the last years of the Edo period. The question about how the Japanese could have become so punctual in the space of a century-and-a-half instantly came to mind.

The person who encouraged me to give form to my ideas by engaging in joint research was Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama then affiliated to the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken). There is a system for joint research at Nichibunken and he recommended that I apply through that system. The organization of the joint research was greatly aided by professors Kuriyama and Suzuki. Another significant contributor to the joint research project was Ms. Ikuko Nishimoto, who submitted a wonderfully insightful paper on schools and education. Following the conclusion of the joint research, Ms. Nishimoto published Jikan Ishiki no Kindai [Modernity in Time Consciousness] (Hosei University Press, 2006).

Professor Sakae Tsunoyama, Professor Emeritus of Wakayama University and a renowned economic historian with experience in research on time, also joined our study group and we referred to Professor Tsunoyama's ideas when coming up with a conclusion regarding the establishment of time discipline in modern Japan. One of these ideas was the "two-layered structure" Tsunoyama proposes. In other words, although time discipline became established relatively quickly in modern systems and institutions such as schools, railways and factories, in other private and public areas it failed to take root prior to the war, where time discipline has been a post-war phenomenon. So when, during the post-war period, did time discipline gain a firm foothold? That was the question that remained.

"When did the Japanese become impatient?" That is the question asked by researcher of time Ichiro Oda, and the same question is also used as the title of a book he has authored on the subject. Modern people are constantly fighting with time. In all sectors of society there is a pressing need for people to use time efficiently. When did this come about? The issue of the "acceleration" of society is not necessarily identical to the one on the establishment of time discipline. Although more study is likely to be required, it is probably safe to say here that the two are closely related.

The acceleration of post-war Japanese society was something that was followed in the long-running Asahi Newspaper comic strip "Sazae-san." Among the thousands of four-frame comic strips that were published, two stories in particular catch the attention. The first of these is a strip that ran in 1952. In it Sazae-san is attracted by a new "speedy weaving machine" that her neighbor has just purchased and she goes round to visit, taking her balls of woolen thread. However, while there she spends the entire time gossiping with her friend and ultimately comes home without having done anything with the woolen thread. The second strip is from 1972. In this strip a group of people establish a "Society of Slow Life" with the slogan "Don't rush, Japanese!" All the members of the society get on well with each other and once they each are allotted a particular task in the society they all get up and rush off, uttering "We must get to work on it right away!" From these two comic strips markedly reversing their content and context, we can see that in the 20-year period between their publication, both the time consciousness of Japanese people changed significantly and great acceleration of society took place during the period of rapid economic growth.

So what happens now in the 21st century? It is suggested that the spread of mobile technology has marked the demise of tardiness, and it is true that the emergence of various new technologies is changing the methods by which people use time. Furthermore, on the one hand as the economy and society continues to accelerate in many areas, as witnessed by the fact that we can now easily engage in online trading, there is now a strong and pressing need to slow the rate at which we are consuming limited natural resources, in order to respond to issues such as resource depletion and global warming. While maintaining the momentum of economic vitality, we now need to recover a long-term perspective that is so easily forgotten in a society where speed is a daily part of life, and move to consider ways in which we can slow the rate of global warming and resource depletion, using time to create happiness and well-being. These are the challenges we face in the 21st century highlighted by the historical considerations of time.

Professor Takehiko Hashimoto

Professor Takehiko Hashimoto

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences