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Making Time

Astronomical Time Measurement in Tokugawa Japan

What is time made of? We might balk at such a question, and reply that time is not made of anything—it is an abstract and universal phenomenon. In Making Time, Yulia Frumer upends this assumption, using changes in the conceptualization of time in Japan to show that humans perceive time as constructed and concrete.

In the mid-sixteenth century, when the first mechanical clocks arrived in Japan from Europe, the Japanese found them interesting but useless, because they failed to display time in units that changed their length with the seasons, as was customary in Japan at the time. In 1873, however, the Japanese government adopted the Western equal-hour system as well as Western clocks. Given that Japan carried out this reform during a period of rapid industrial development, it would be easy to assume that time consciousness is inherent to the equal-hour system and a modern lifestyle, but Making Time suggests that punctuality and time-consciousness are equally possible in a society regulated by a variable-hour system, arguing that this reform occurred because the equal-hour system better reflected a new conception of time — as abstract and universal—which had been developed in Japan by a narrow circle of astronomers, who began seeing time differently as a result of their measurement and calculation practices. Over the course of a few short decades this new way of conceptualizing time spread, gradually becoming the only recognized way of treating time.   

272 pages | 10 color plates, 40 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History, History of Ideas, History of Technology

History of Science


"Will fascinate readers . . . . Making Time is the most comprehensive treatment of Japanese timekeeping to date, but it is not a specialized book for horologists interested in detailed information about clock mechanisms and makers. Frumer’s text is addressed to historians of science, technology, and Japanese culture. She deftly shows that technology is not just about practical needs; it is shaped by a society’s values and activities. . . . Frumer's analysis has reach far beyond Japan."

Physics Today

"A superb study that is narrow in focus but broad in its implications. . . . This book is a remarkable achievement. The thesis is original and compelling, and Frumer deftly integrates an analysis of technological diffusion with a discussion of time as a social construct. She connects detailed explorations of clock mechanisms and astronomical calculations with insights into lived experience. This is a genuine contribution to our understanding of early modern and Meiji Japan."

American Historical Review

"Yulia Frumer is an engaging narrator. . . . [whose] sophisticated analyses add valuable and original insight into the early development of astronomical sciences in Japan. . . . Making Time is pioneering in employing a cultural historical approach to demonstrate how Japanese astronomers interpreted and attached meanings to Western ideas, texts, clocks, instruments, and other materials. . . . The book is well furnished with clear color photographs of Japanese clocks as well as many black-and-white illustrations that might not only attract the reader but also help support Frumer’s analysis."


"While it provides an exceptionally rich and focused case study grounded in careful research with Japanese documents and material objects, Frumer’s book also offers a critical analysis of what it is that we’re doing when we study the relationship between societies and technologies that has potentially far-reaching consequences well beyond the history of Japan."

New Books Network

"Making superb use of the material evidence, Frumer undertakes a procedure analogous to the reverse-engineering practiced by Tokugawa clockmakers themselves, unpicking the logic behind puzzling pieces of an alien material culture. . . . Frumer’s substantive claims are always compelling, and the details she unearths are of endless interest. . . . [Her] penetrating analysis of astronomical time illuminates one crucial element of that complex time-scape without beginning to exhaust it. This reviewer, for one, looks forward to seeing what new questions it will prompt—and what will issue next from the talented author of Making Time."

The Journal of Japanese Studies

"I wish the book had existed twenty years ago... Frumer is intent on bringing early modern Japan out of the shadow of the modern period, a task that remains warranted and needed... Frumer’s monograph is an excellent early step in understanding time reckoning in Japan prior to the modern period."

Monumenta Nipponica

“Setting out to explore the genesis of astronomical time in Japan’s Tokugawa period (1600–1868), Yulia Frumer’s Making Time: Astronomical Time Measurement in Tokugawa Japan succeeds brilliantly in filling a gap in the world history of time and science for an English-speaking audience.”


“Brace yourself for a most thought-provoking journey through time in premodern Japan. This book forces historians of science and technology to think more deeply about what they think they already know about modernity and time practices before and while the global system of commerce and exchange tightened its grip in the nineteenth century. Historically brilliant and beautifully written, Frumer unfolds how and why astronomical time-space relationships came to matter in Tokugawa and Meiji scientific minds and public life. I literally felt the ambiguities of time come to life in her rich account, in relative and absolute terms. One emerges from reading it inspired and positively provoked, realizing the lived truth of Einstein’s theory: time indeed flows at different rates for different systems.”

Dagmar Schäfer, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

“Well-researched and original in its interpretation, this history of timekeeping in early modern Japan introduces an aspect of Japanese culture and knowledge production that has been only scantly covered in traditional scholarship. Making Time is a major, outstanding contribution to both East Asian cultural history and the history of science.”

Federico Marcon, Princeton University

"Yulia Frumer’s monograph is a welcome addition to the English-language scholarship on timekeeping traditions and material practices in Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868)...Frumer demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the cultural valences of measuring and embodying time and focuses on how foreign technology – European and hence “Western” and “foreign” – was adapted and acculturated to meet the specific needs of individuals and society in the Tokugawa period."


"Frumer brings life to how intellectuals and craftsmen thought about time and timekeeping. Well re-searched and convincingly argued, Making Time is a significant contribution to the social and technological histories of early modern Japan. It is a welcome addition that will likely inspire further research on the subject."

Technology and Culture

Table of Contents

Note on Names and Translations

1. Variable Hours in a Changing Society
2. Towers, Pillows, and Graphs: Variation in Clock Design
3. Astronomical Time Measurement and Changing Conceptions of Time
4. Geodesy, Cartography, and Time Measurement
5. Navigation and Global Time
6. Time Measurement on the Ground in Kaga Domain
7. Clock-makers at the Crossroads
8. Western Time and the Rhetoric of Enlightenment

Appendix 1: Hours
Appendix 2: Seasons
Appendix 3: Years in the nengō System
Appendix 4: The kanshi-, or e-to, Cycle


History of Science Society: Pfizer Award
Short Listed

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