Emperor Meiji’s Clock Poem

Harold Wright


kakeshi tokei no
Kuruwanu oto no
kokochi yoki kana.

This poem is a tanka by the Emperor Meiji, 122nd Emperor of Japan, who reigned from 1868 to 1912, when Japan began its modern explosion towards the modern world. The poetry of this Emperor has delighted me for years. Oh, he did write a lot of awful mini-“State of the Union” messages, but I like his personal poetry and his poems about new inventions coming into Japan. He wrote tanka about his first exposure to telescopes, photography, trains, steamships, telegraphs, and then too Western-style wars. He expressed grief over troop losses in verse.

But this is one of his “newfangled thing” poems. Its title is “Tokei” (timepiece, clock or watch). And here we begin the process of trying to find out what the poem means. There is no distinction between singular and plural in Japanese so we don’t know, yet, how many timepieces he is talking about. There is no distinction either (even today) between clocks or watches. Both are called tokei , literally “time-measurer.”

Now in the classical Japanese system of time measurement there were twelve periods or “hours” in the day. Six units divided up the day and six more divided up the night. The length of each of these “hours” however kept changing according to the seasons. These twelve hours were named after the names of the Chinese zodiac, with the Hour of the Rat being the two hours or so around midnight. Later the Japanese developed a clock that seemed to run backwards. Some sources say they got it from the Portuguese. Anyway it is said that kokonotsu-doki (ninth hour) was twelve midnight. Eight o’clock was two a.m. , seven o’clock was four a.m. and so on.

In Manners and Customs of the Japanese in the Nineteenth Century (Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle 1985—a re-print of the 1841 New York English edition), Dr. Philipp Franz von Siebold, one of the early scholars on Japan, writes:

Again, the numbering of the hours, which seems so straightforward a matter for people who can count to twelve, is in Japan so strangely complicated, that, had not the expedient been adopted of bestowing upon each hour the name of a sign of the zodiac in addition to its number, it would be not easy task to answer there the seemingly plain question of “What’s o’clock?”

We shall attempt to explain this abstruse and original system.

Nine being esteemed the perfect number, noon and midnight are both called “nine o’clock,” the one of the day, the other of the night; while sunrise and sunsets are respectively “six o’clock” of the day and “six o’clock” of the night. If it be asked how nine can occur twice in twelve, the answer is, that the arithmetical impossibility is conquered or obviated by omitting the first three numbers, beginning with four and ending with the perfect nine. The intermediate numbers are laboriously evolved from the multiplication table, and the system is based upon the profound respect entertained for number nine. Here is the process: Nine, being the hour of noon or midnight, is the point from which the numbering begins, and is considered as the first hour. Twice 9 are 18; subtract the decimal figure and 8 remains, therefore 8 remains,therefore is the hour Following noon or midnight, say the second hour, 8 o’clock of the day or night. Three times 9 are 27; subtract the decimal figure and 7 remains, and the third hour becomes 7 o’clock of the day or night. Four times nine are 36,”? and that is how you know dawn and dusk are at 6 o/clock.

Well, this may work for lovers out cruising around in ox carts at all hours of the morning, but come the modern world, something a little more accurate, if not simpler, was needed.

The first pocket watch in the country was said to have been a gift of Commodore Perry to the reigning Shogun in 1854. Then after 1869 the traditional Japanese way of telling time, as described above, gave way to the Western system of hours and minutes. Soon after this change in time was accepted cheap pocket watches became fairly common among students. Literary sources confirm this by 1872.

Wrist-watches began sweeping the country after 1902. Clocks and watches of all descriptions appeared in homes and offices. One poem by the Emperor Meiji reveals that he slept with a clock at his bedside. But we don’t know what kind of a timepiece he was referring to. It was written in 1906. Let’s see if there are any other clues. Let me first give a literal translation of what is here:

Kazu (numbers) amata (many)
kake (wind-up) shi (was) tokei (timepiece) no (as for)
kotogotoku (altogether)
Kuruwa (out of order) nu (not) oto (sound) no (as for)
kokochi (feelings) yoki (good) kana (ah. . . )

The Emperor (at least the persona behind the poem) seems to be aware of a lot of time pieces. We can’t tell from the poem alone who it is that is aware. There is no subject to the poem. We can’t tell if it is written in first, second, or third person. It could even be plural. At one time I translated a lot of these poems using the first person singular. But then I once hit on the idea of the Imperial “We”, and started using it. Now those readers who know about the Imperial “we” realize that the Emperor was probably writing alone. Those who don’t can just as well assume that he is with someone. It seems to work either way.

What else do we know? Well, there are a lot of clocks. They have been wound up. And altogether they seem to be ticking, and someone (I assume it is the Emperor. . . a “we” or “us” anyway) is enjoying the whole scene. Well, that’s enough to begin translating. Simply put, the Empeor likes his clocks to run smoothly. Let’s see what we can say about that. One of my first attempts went:


In vast numbers
clocks are ticking everywhere
each on its own,

And knowing they don’t disagree
brings to us such pleasure!

Is there a deeper meaning here? Or is it merely a little poem about the poet’s fascination with some clocks or watches? We don’t even know how many or what kind. Where was the poem written? I will probably never know. I did, however, develop other clues. First I decided to ask a couple of my Japanese friends. Both were educated. Both read poetry. I showed them the poem cold. I didn’t say who wrote it. I just asked, “What does this mean to you? Anything?”

The first one said she had the image of someone, maybe a man, standing in a clock shop. The wall was covered with all kinds of clocks. They were set at the same time and were ticking along together. He was delighted. Although I knew of no historical reference about the Emperor Meiji ever entering a shop of any kind, he did travel around a lot and was shown the marvels of the new modern age. Maybe he did poke his head into a clock shop. How could I work the idea of “clock shop” into the poem without changing the poem drastically? Well, maybe I could get by with calling the poem “Clocks in a Clock Shop,” translating it this way:


In endless numbers
all the clocks have been hung up
and then together
They tick in perfect order
and this brings us such pleasure.

But then another Japanese friend, a poet, stopped by and I said again, “What does this mean to you?” She said that she saw an old house with lots of old-fashioned clocks covering the walls. An old man goes around every day winding them up. He is probably retired and very bored. Once he gets them all wound up and going he just sets back and admires them. He just doesn’t have much to do. It’s like his hobby. Maybe he collects alarm clocks.

All right. Maybe I could call the poem, “My Alarm Clock Collection”:


In endless numbers
my alarm clocks have been set

and then together

They just burst out

and this brings us such pleasure.

Well, that might be a lot of fun for some old retired duffer, but for the Emperor of Japan? My poet friend even agreed, once she found out who wrote the poem, that it probably wasn’t about alarm clocks.

But what does this poem really say about anything? We are told there are a lot of clocks or watches or both. and all of them are ticking along, at least making a sound of some kind together, and that feels good. So what? I have said that I admired a lot of the Emperor Meiji’s poetry. I didn’t say that ALL of it was great. He did write 100,000 poems in his lifetime. I once calculated it out to four or five a day. The poems are short. It’s not impossible. What is impossible is to come up with an earth-shaking image every few hours, even if you do have two-hour long hours, and you work at home. Maybe he was bored. That may be a clue. He did even write poems about writing poems:

Being all alone
and consoling our own heart
for this one day,
The time was spent quietly
in the writing of poems.

Now this poem was written around the same time as the ticking clock poem. Maybe that is all there is to it. Maybe he was walking around the palace trying to find something to write a poem about. I’m a poet. I’ve done stuff like that. So let’s go with:


In endless numbers
all our clocks have been wound up
and then together
They tick in perfect order
and this brings us much pleasure.

Well, that is a little less weird, but I’m still not sure what he is intending to say.

Maybe he was just walking around feeling real proud. Japan now had one-hour hours like everyone else. Their new kind of clocks even had minute hands. And they all agreed. That might be exciting. After all he did write a poem about getting a “new-fangled” kerosene lamp for his desk! . . . Now “I can do paperwork at night.” He was after all the chief administrator, and people like that do get excited about strangest things. Maybe there was more going on like this in this poem. I had this deep feeling that the poem didn’t deal with clocks at all. There was something larger going on—maybe the “clock” in the title was symbolic of something else. Maybe the year 1906 was a clue.

My first glimpse into what this poem was really all about, at a deeper level than merely having the Emperor of Japan sitting around admiring a bunch of clocks, came from a comment made by my mother, telling of life down on the farm in southern Ohio. When she was a little kid her grandfather repaired watches for people in his spare time. Once a week or so he would take a bunch of watches into town to deliver them, and to pick up others. While in town he would go to the train station to check on the correct time. “It came in on a ticker tape.” The clock at the train station was said to be accurate. But her grandfather would ask his customers if they wanted their watches set to “standard time” or “sun time.” Many said they they wanted “the time of God Almighty!” They wanted nothing to do with that “standard train time.” This gave me a clue. I knew it was important to have a standard time to keep trains running on schedule. But how and when did this come about? And did it have anything at all with the Emperor’s clocks “ticking away together”? I decided to look at the history of trains in Japan.

Commodore Perry first exposed the Japanese to the concept of rail travel by providing his Japanese official hosts with a small-scale but rideable model during his “Open Door” visit of 1854. It was not until Sept. 12, 1872 that the first Japanese railway line was opened between Shinbashi (in Tokyo) and the neighboring port city of Yokohama, eighteen miles away. Four years later Osaka was linked with the ancient capital of Kyoto. By mid-1870 there were 1,750,000 passengers a year traveling between Tokyo and Yokohama. By the year 1906, the year of our clock poem, a celebration was held in the city of Nagoya commemorating the laying of some 5,000 miles of track. They even had Pullman cars, and the Emperor wrote a poem about the new method of travel.


In a world
where there are sleeping quarters
provided on trains
There are even travelers
who leave on journeys at night.

The Emperor’s own railroad car, plush with velvet, is now on display at the Meiji Village near Nagoya. It appears from other contemporary poetry of the Emperor that he wrote this train poem while on a journey himself. Maybe he went to Nagoya for the celebration.
I’ve been trying to get grant money for years to do this sort of detailed research, but research on Imperial Poetry in Japan has a few political problems. Publishers, anyway, just don’t consider it to be politically correct. There were some nasty wars being fought during the reign of the Emperor Meiji. Maybe the poem has something to do with war as well as trains?

Wars. The history of modern Japan, if not the modern world, is the history of war. I won’t go into detail. Let me say simply that taking Commodore Perry’s lead, Japan thought it was a better idea to be a colonial power, than a victim of one. They could well see what the Europeans were doing throughout the rest of Asian, if not the whole world. The decided to build themselves an army like Prussia’s and a navy like Britain’s. And they did it pretty quickly. They did have good advice from foreign advisors and people selling arms. This build-up in ambition led them into conflicts with everyone with Far East interests. China was at that time described as a melon. Just go in and cut yourself off a slice. Most of the stronger nations in Europe had already been doing this. Japan decided to join in. They did have sharp swords. Their atrocities are still being brought to light or being denied. Korea was considered to be a vassal of China but in the 19th century she was permitted to negotiate with other countries like Japan, the U.S. and Great Britain as a more or less independent state. But Japan wanted more. Japan wanted an end to any Chinese control and interference on the Korean peninsula.

On July 25, 1894 the Chinese fired on Japanese ships. Japan retaliated and eventually won her first war against a modern nation. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed April 17, 1895. Japan gained in land. Formosa (Taiwan) and other islands were then theirs. Japan was now a modern colonial power , but this brought other resentments and conflicted with other interests. Korea was “independent” but there were speculations that it wouldn’t be for long. Korea was only 115 miles off the coast of Japan, and Russia wanted Korea for a ice free port. Russia had been dealing with China, but now felt threatened by Japan. The two countries finally did come to bitter blows in the Russo-Japanese war, from 1904 to 1905, and Russia was thoroughly trounced both on land and at sea. These wars gave Japan more land, and railroads. She had gained a railroad in Korea earlier. But this time she got a railroad built by the Russians in Manchuria. Japan also got the mining rights that went with the railroad. These were big stakes. Can we believe that the Emperor of Japan, the ruler of the most powerful nation in Asia, was so bored a year later that he had nothing to do but play with his clocks and then write poems about it? Japan actually annexed Korea in l910, so we can be sure that things were building up in 1906.

Now I won’t demand that you believe that all this war, corruption and international greed has anything at all to do with a poem about clocks. Yet the Emperor did write it in 1906, probably less than a year after the Treaty of Portsmouth (Sept. 5, 1905). Remember, too, that this treaty was brought about by President Theodore Roosevelt, who seemed to be an admirer of the Meiji Emperor and of Japan. And I’ll bet the Emperor was feeling a lot more pleased about some things than a brand new toy for his mantel. I’ll bet too that he had more to do than walk around the palace winding up things. The Japanese, as a modern nation, were on a roll.

Let’s look again at trains. They had 5000 miles of track running all over Japan and now two railroad systems on the Asian mainland. Those trains had to start being one time. So back to clocks. “God-Almighty time” or not, “train time” was the time the trains ran on. Countries with trains needed a standard time. Yet it seemed most people in the world were quite happy to look up in the sky and decide it was noon when the sun was the highest. If you had watch or a clock you set it. Some people had more sophisticated ways of looking up and determining “noon.” (I myself as a kid knew if I could easily step on the head of my own shadow it was probably time to head home to get something to eat). Telling time by the sun wasn’t much of a problem if you stayed close to home all the time. But then came the trains. And if you knew it would take, say, three hours to get somewhere, it would be awfully nice to know what time the train left and that you, the station masters, the conductor, and the person coming to meet you all had the same time.

Curiosity as to the concept of “time” itself led me to a book by Derek Howse, Greenwich Time and the Discovery of Longitude. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1980.) Now I was on to something. There was a very important link between time and travel. And the faster you traveled the more important a good watch became. Sea captains were using chronometers determining longitude at sea from the early sixteenth century. But to have a really good timepiece you needed the Dutch mathematician, astronomer, and horologist Christiaan Huygens (1629-96) to come along and invent the pendulum clock in 1657. He also had a hand in the invention of the balance spring for watches in the 1670’s. These inventions were important, but it took a full 100 years before the sea captains had a clock they could really depend on.

But in the meantime some people back in England were giving thought to building an up-to-date observatory in a historical building called Greenwich Castle. By 1676 they had all sorts of things to look at the stars and to figure out distances at sea. It had “been assumed ” by the Copernicans that “the Earth rotates on its axis at a constant speed. . . but it had never been proved. . .” To check this out for sure they needed a really good clock. And thanks to Huygens this was now possible. Thomas Tompion (1638-1713) down in London said that he could make just the thing, and accepted an order for two “Great Clocks.” One of them had a thirteen- foot pendulum. With this they could set a stop watch on the planet itself. Now sailing ship masters still needed the invention of the sextant, and the development of a real sea-going chronometer to find out where they really were out in the middle of the Pacific, and that too was developed in the mid 1700s. Even Captain [James] Cook(1728-79) knew within seconds what time it was back in Greenwich while he was sailing around the Hawaiian Islands. The only problem was that most Frenchmen and Americans didn’t really care what time it was back in England. They were using Paris time and Washington time.

In the 1840’s the Post Office and the Great Western Railway in England joined forces to use Greenwich time and to keep accurate schedules. Then came electricity and the telegraph (and later the radio) and time signals could actually be sent from place to place. There was no reason now in the l800’s to go out and gawk at the hot sun at noon to know if it was time to go home to eat a baloney sandwich. In the U.S.A. there came to be increasing pressure from the railroads to have a standard time. There was a three and a half hour time difference in sun time between the East and West coasts. Up until the Civil War all the different railroads had their own time. Transferring from one train to another wasn’t easy—Howse writes:

“For instance, a traveler from Portland, Main, on reaching Buffalo, NY, would find four different kinds of ‘time’: the New York Central railroad clock might indicate 12:00 (New York time), the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern clocks in the same room 11:25 (Columbus time), the Buffalo city clocks 11:40, and his own watch 12:15 (Portland time).”

Still that wasn’t the worst. Pittsburgh, Penn. had six different times for arrival and departures. And to get to San Francisco by train you had to change your watch “some twenty times during the journey.”

So in 1870 a 107 page pamphlet was published entitled A System of National Time for Railroads. This was written by Professor Charles Ferdinand Dowd (1825-1904), the Principal of Temple Grove Ladies’ Seminary in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He proposed that the U.S. be divided into four standard time zones 15 degrees (or one hour) apart. This meant that, in theory, the minute and second hands of all clocks in the whole country would show the same time, only the hour hands being different! This was new stuff, but the railroad people liked it when it was presented in 1871 to the North East Railroad Association. Some argued, even that early, that the starting point should not be Washington, however—the starting line should be Greenwich, England. They felt that using Washington projected the other time zones too far to the west, meaning that Pennsylvania and the Eastern states would be on the same time as a lot of the Atlantic Ocean, and Ohio would be pushed over into the central time zone with Texas. The alternative, using Greenwich as the starting point, meant we could have the Eastern Time Zone as we know it today. Ohio and New York would be in one section. This argument seemed reasonable to Dowd, but it still took him until 1883 to get it accepted. This was the year that “all public clocks all over North America were altered to the ‘new standard’.”

So what does this have to do with a little poem written in a little island country off the coast of China? Well, who were helping the Japanese build their railroads? The Americans. And did these folks believe in railroad time? I’m sure they did. There was a lot of international interest in creating a standard time during the early years of Japan’s modernization. Telegraphs alone would demand it. And that brings us to the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C in October of 1884. The U.S. argued that it had the longest railroad in the world and it would be right to have the conference here. The U.S. itself only accepted Greenwich meridian eighteen days before they sent out the invitations for the 1884 conference.

But the response for a conference was favorable and forty-one delegates from twenty-five countries arrived. Japan was there and they voted not only for the “Principle of a Single Prime Meridian” but on Greenwich as the starting point as well. This was 1884. When was everyone in Japan required by law to set their watches and clocks to the same time? —In 1888. The Emperor wrote his little poem about clocks a full eight years after his country’s acceptance of Greenwich Mean time. All the clocks had been ticking happily together for nearly a decade.

So why would he suddenly write one about this phenomenon in 1906? Maybe he just noticed. Maybe he was enjoying his paperwork too much? But remember the war with Russia in which Japan gained land and railroads in Manchuria? Remember their railroad they owned in Korea? Well, both Manchuria and Korea both adopted Greenwich Mean Time in 1904, just as the war was breaking out with Russia over these areas. (The U.S.S.R. didn’t accept the idea until 1924.) So it might seem natural that the Emperor would write a poem about the standardization of time as it then affected Japan’s first attempts at colonization. Japan won the war with Russia in 1905 and maybe less than one year later he wrote this poem about clocks. Japan’s trains in Korea and Manchuria, as well as Japan’s trains at home, needed to run on time. To have the trains run on time, there had to be an agreement on standard time. By the time of the writing of this poem the railroad in Korea, Manchuria, and Japan had all been operating on Greenwich Mean Time for over a year, even though there was a difference in one time zone between Japan and the rest of her possessions. So let me translate the poem again:


In endless numbers
the Empire’s clocks are wound up
and then together
They tick in perfect order
bringing us satisfaction!

Well, at least that is not a retired gentleman’s poem. But I suspect the Emperor had a wider vision for Japan’s place in the modern world. Japan wanted to be considered a modern country, and to gain the respect of Europe. To gain that respect the Japanese were willing to get Western haircuts, learn Western languages, dress in foreign clothes, eat the food of Westerners, learn to dance like Westerners, build factories like Westerners, fight with Western weapons and travel abroad as tuxedoed diplomats. Setting their clocks to “tick in harmony” with the clocks of Europe would be merely one more symbol of Japanese readiness to move fully into the twentieth century. The poem of the Emperor Meiji could also be seen to refer to clocks all over the globe. I believe, eventually, anyway, he wanted to live in a peaceful world. If that is indeed what he meant by this little poem, I am tempted to translate the poem again:


In endless numbers
clocks are wound up everywhere
and then together
They in perfect harmony
bring all of us such pleasure.

And why have I spent so much time on the subject of clocks and time? Let me tell you now, in all seriousness, my real intent—my “hidden agenda”:


If we can agree on the last call in a Dublin pub and the closing time of the local Tavern, we can agree that no child ever needs to go to bed hungry. We can stop feeding them drugs.

If we can agree on the time of a game show or baseball final or the prayers for the sinful, we can agree that no one should be without appointments for health care in the days of old age.

If we can bake bread or know how long it takes milk to sour or plants to wither without water, we can discover that there are more empty rooms in all of the world than there are people asleep. If we can find ways to prolong the time of our deaths we can find roofs to cover the heads of our poor.

If we can agree on curfews and the boiling of eggs, if we can measure oxygen in tanks under the sea, if we can time entrance exams and pie-eating contests, or take a pulse, if we can set astrology charts and the time of an execution down to the minute or measure the swiftness of light of the sun, if we can probe mountains far under the oceans with the timing of bounced rays or calibrate the speed of our police cars, if we can nurse babies on schedule or change planes in Chicago. . . THEN we can count the noses that most of us have, or our ears, or our toes and find that there is more of a sameness in the people of the world than the words that we speak or the color of eyes.

If we can win prizes or bets for being fast swimmers or quick at recalling trivial facts, or place importance on the acceleration times of our cars, we can value the lives of others living borders away and stop taking pride in the speed of destruction.

If classrooms have bells and tardiness is a concept, if we can have detention, then we can know how slow we have been in respecting the earth. When will we learn our lessons on the destruction of trees and the dangers in poisoning our wells? Do we know of the thousands of years needed for healing?

If we can map weather and plan for a picnic, we can shelter our earth from the fallout of ignorance and the vast acid rains of our past.

If we can set our clocks back in the fall of the year to control the daylight or dark and confuse all our cattle, we can dismantle our bombs and bury the bolts in old uranium mines.

If every Girl Scout, camel driver, president or priestess, every member of the Ku Klux Klan or Salvation Army, every drug dealer or member of every parliament, every student or professor late to class can agree, through all the earth, on the exact time of tides or the precise second of the appearing sun, then we can bring to our tiny swirling planet an end to the long night of war. We would know that our clock for global catastrophe stands now at ten minutes till midnight.

If we can manufacture concepts of starting and quitting, and even conceive of a time clock, then we could learn it’s time to stop killing others for politics or profit. If we know store hours and bank times we can scan the horizon again for signs for a season of peace, and rattle our plowshares until dusk.

Like the old man said: “There may be more horses’ asses than there are horses, but we don’t have to elect them all.”

If we can know that the stones of our earth and the orbiting moon will be here long after our lives, we might want to look more at the infinity of night sky.

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Harold Wright

Author's Bio


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