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Japanese Pillar Clocks


In my various blogs to date we have studied clockmaking in the UK in great depth, this is with due reason. London was the centre of the clock making during the 17th/18th and 19th centuries. In my later blogs I have looked at clock making in France and Germany. Clock decoration carried out by the Chinese, on lacquer clocks. I wish to end this year with a quick look at antique clocks and timekeeping in Japan. I will focus on the humble Japanese Pillar Clock.


Japanese Time

Japanese clocks were somewhat different to European antique clocks in the 17th,18th and 19th centuries. The earliest clocks to come to Japan from missionaries and merchants had to be adapted to Japanese time. The Japanese clock makers had many challenges adapting these clocks. They also had the problem as a nation they were very isolationist after the mid 17th century. Their technology in this regard somewhat lagged behind the western clocks of the period.

So what is Japanese time I hear you ask? Surely all time is measured the same, well no not for the Japanese culture in these early periods. In fact it was not until 1873 that the Japanese government adopted the 24 hour system used in the West and the Gregorian calendar.

Adjustable Clock Divisions

Japanese time required 6 hours in the daytime from sunrise to sunset and 6 hours at night, from sunset to sunrise. As a result of the seasons these time periods were unequal and the divisions on Japanese clocks had to be adjustable. This was called unequal temporal hours. Daylight hours were longer in the summer and shorter in the winter, with the opposite at night. Clearly this produced problems and the European system of equal hours that did not vary with seasons was far simpler.

Rare Clocks Shitan Wood

The Japanese pillar clock pictured here is a rare example that is a striking example, most are timepiece. It is also weight driven. It has a verge escapement, beautifully turned pillars and a foliot escapement. As the clock winds out the indicator tells the time by the scales on the door. Typical clocks had six numbered hours from 9 to 4 which counted backwards from noon to midnight. The dials did not have the numbers 1 to 3 for religious reasons. Dawn and dusk were marked as the sixth hour in Japanese timekeeping. A list of the strange dials for the hours is given on Wikipedia, please take a look.

The name pillar clocks comes from the fact they used to hang from the pillars or posts of the Japanese houses. These clocks were generally made from a wood called Shitan. Clearly because of the fragile nature of the construction only a few have survived and they are highly sought after. The movements go for just 1 day on a wind.


I hope you all have a happy and most important of all healthy Christmas and New Year. Soon restarting my antique clock blog in the New Year. I hope you have enjoyed and hopefully learned something from them. Again have a lovely holiday and see you soon.