Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
“People there have a different sense of time” –is there anyone who hasn’t heard this cliché for the cultures of the Far East? Easterners are not slaves to their watches like Westerners: they understand time through the passage of seasons and trough sunrise and sunset and they make their daily, weekly or yearly program according to the cycles of nature. They are not hurrying, they are not pressed and they don’t get stressed and this is reflected on the products of their culture which explains why these products are so sought after and why people in the West want to have them in their environment: they remind them how to live in harmony with nature and, thus, with more balance and serenity. (The comparison between the two attitudes and especially the comparison ending, somewhat hypocritically, in favor of the eastern one is optional but follows almost invariably.)
All these would be very nice if they were true; my experience and, I believe, the experience of everyone who has been in Japan, even as a visitor, is diametrically opposite: I don’t know what was happening 100 or 200 years ago, but I doubt there is any other people with such a close relationship with the clock as the contemporary Japanese. From the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they go to bed at night, the inhabitants of the Japanese islands (or, at any rate, of their big cities) live according to a schedule calculated to the second; furthermore the internalization of this schedule is so deep that their body/brain clocks have been so tuned that they function independently when it comes to the next or the last train, the time the shops close or the estimate of a trip to the other side of the city. If one wasn’t afraid of the generalization and the exaggeration they could say that the Japanese don’t live with the clocks –they are clocks themselves.
There’s no doubt that the phenomenon depends to a great extent on the lifestyle: a salaried employee in Shinjuku is in a greater hurry than a traditional artisan in Arakawa and a salesgirl in a big department store in Nihonbashi is in a greater hurry than the owner of a 50 square feet souvenir shop in Asakusa. But such differences aside, the sense of time (or more accurately: its constrains) and its consequences –the respect towards punctuality and precision and the programming to the last detail- remains one of the sturdier components of Japanese life. And even though sometimes it leads to results that to the eyes of Westerners seem suffocating and lethal to spontaneity and directness, the Japanese manage to use its limitations as just another element of the canvas on which they weave their everyday life; after all wasn’t that why we were supposed to have created time?
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.