New Times in Modern Japan

New Times in Modern Japan

Stefan Tanaka
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 240
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    New Times in Modern Japan
    Book Description:

    New Times in Modern Japanconcerns 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2624-7
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prelude: TIME, PASTS, HISTORY (pp. 1-26)

    I have long been struck by the statement of a Japanese elite, reported through Erwin Baelz in 1876: “We have no history. Our history begins today” (quoted in Wilson 1980, 570).¹ The absence of history in an archipelago that abounds with traces of its long past (at that time believed to be around twenty-five hundred years, and over fifteen hundred years if one begins from the tumuli) seems odd. But this statement roughly coincides with the reform of calendrical and clock time in 1872. The beginning of history coincides with the adoption of a modern time; it recalls Mumford’s statement...

  5. Chapter 1 DISCOVERY OF PASTS (pp. 27-53)

    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...

  6. Chapter 2 “NOTHING IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE” (pp. 54-84)

    The geological discoveries exposed a past separate from culture and destabilized those categories that had been used to allay fear and anxiety, that is, how people were acquainted with what they could not control. But an awareness of a natural history separate from human time and of some linear time, called progress, does not ensure easy social adjustment to this discovery. Ninagawa’s preservationism showed some of this new awareness and interest in the past, but it was limited by its reliance on the inherited knowledge that tied culture to nature. More revolutionary change, “spring cleaning,” was called for:

    Once the...


    The absence of the past is, interestingly, a result of the discovery and then separation of the past from the present. It leads to a rather interesting situation: the inherited forms of knowledge that had organized society were now denigrated because of a hope and promise that a better system based on science and rationality exists. But it was (is) a promise of improvement of which the immediate result was an uncertainty about what is given and created. Such dislocation and uncertainty created by scientific and rationalistic ideas is described succinctly by Terry Eagleton: “Once the bourgeoisie has dismantled the...


    The formulation of an essential time from the archive of the archipelago both naturalized the idea of Japan as a “collective singular” and removed that past from time. This is one of those continuities where such concepts and data become the constant, free-floating signifiers of the nation, whose periodic reappearance in time proves its timelessness. The formulation of an essence of this nation is a critical part of the unfolding of the modern nation-state. An essential time occults part of that past that was evil, those “self incurred immaturities” from which it is necessary to extract oneself. But even though...

  9. Chapter 5 SOCIALIZATION OF SOCIETY (pp. 144-167)

    The worker’s statement above that “nothing matters” suggests a transformation of neighborhoods and societies based on immediate and overt human relations to abstract ideas governed by time. Indeed, this is an outcome of the new temporality on the archipelago: the loosening of local, place-based ideas in favor of a national space oriented toward economic growth and military power (fukoku kyōhei). It is the transformation of the craftsman into a unit of input (labor) and a part of the “abstract social structures that people themselves constitute” that Postone sees as an instrument of control. Long ago Karl Polanyi identified the moment...


    In his 1917 appraisal of Japan, after decades of admiration through his friendship with Okakura, Rabindranath Tagore writes, as if betrayed:

    I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedom by their government, which through various educational agencies regulates their thoughts, manufactures their feelings, becomes suspiciously watchful when they show signs of inclining toward the spiritual, leading them through a narrow path not toward what is true but what is necessary for the complete welding of them into one uniform mass according to its own recipe....

  11. EPILOGUE (pp. 193-202)

    On Saturday, September 1, 1923, at 11:58’44,” a violent earthquake shook the Tokyo/Yokohama region. The epicenter was in Sagami Bay, northeast of Oshima, the island that John Milne (and others) visited in 1880. The amplitude of this earthquake was greater than the 1855 Ansei earthquake. The destruction was catastrophic: over 100,000 were killed by the falling buildings and the fires that raged afterwards; of the 2.4 million inhabitants of Tokyo, less than 800,000 still had a roof over their head. Virtually all of Yokohama’s 71,000 buildings had been destroyed. Communications systems were destroyed; telephone and telegraph lines were down, and...

  12. WORKS CITED (pp. 203-218)
  13. INDEX (pp. 219-225)


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