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Collection of Japanese Clocks for Bonhams Auction

Bonhams sale of Japanese clocks on February 17 will feature 60 stunning examples of the Japanese master clockmakers work.

Of the many strange features about these clocks are the numbers which allow one to calibrate them to the longer summer hour based on the greater amount of light requiring an expandable hour. The Japanese were as confused by western concepts of time, introduced by Christian Missionaries, as the westerners were by Japanese time keeping.

Japanese ClockPerhaps, rather sadly, western time won and the traditional Japanese clock was redundant, which makes this collection all the more fascinating because for the past 200 years these clocks have literally kept ‘a time that is past.’

John Read OBE, one time chairman of the British Horological Institute and a legend in the watch market is the leading authority in the west on Japanese clocks and the man who introduced Rolex to Japan. He brought back to England this fascinating collection of time pieces. He first moved to Japan in 1954 when the country was beginning its recovery from the destruction wrought during the Second World War. While there he trained as many as 500 Japanese watch makers.

Speaking about the history of Japanese clocks he says: “The Revolution of 1866 saw the end of the Tokugawa Dynasty and the restoration of the Monarchy. Japan threw herself open to western influences, but it was not until January 1873, after seven frustrating years, that Emperor Meiji was able to issue a decree whereby Japan was to abandon its ancient and complicated method of time measurement and adopt the simplified European system, making all existing clocks obsolete. As a result of this many of the traditional Japanese clocks were destroyed. In fact some of the best examples surviving to this day are those that were taken abroad by foreigners.”

The first record of a European clock in Japan was one which Francisco Xavier, a Jesuit priest presented in 1551 to the Governor of Yamaguchi in Suwa. European clocks were mostly imported into Japan by Jesuit missionaries, both for their own use and as gifts for the Shogun and nobility.

But the Japanese were not keen to change their ancient time keeping for the new western model and the ancient system was kept alive by Buddhist and Shinto priests who operated incense clocks in the shrines around the country.

By 1612 Japanese blacksmiths were producing their own version of western clocks, known as Daimyo clocks because only the Daimyo, the nobles, could afford the clocks. Brilliant as metal workers the Japanese were clever clockmakers and a flourishing industry came into being in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Tokyo.

The Japanese made brilliant technological innovations such as lacquering to protect delicate iron cogs and gears, a time consuming process but one responsible for the fact the metal in Japanese clocks of this period is in far better condition than equivalent western clocks.

James Stratton, Head of the Clock and Watch Department at Bonhams says: “These are often very beautiful works of art as much as historically interesting timepieces. The level and quality of decorative work is quite breathtaking. And of course you are looking at a mix of Japanese craftsmanship getting to grips with a new method of time keeping. These are utterly fascinating objects which speak of cultural borrowing and making that borrowed sense of time their own.”

John Read adds: “These are outstanding clocks of their time. Over time the clocks evolved to suit the peculiarities of the Japanese timekeeping system. Nevertheless they remained an incredibly expensive and rare item. One clock would have cost the equivalent of 20 years wages for a normal person. On top of this, each was looked after by a man whose sole responsibility was the maintenance of the clock. It is little wonder that the clocks were so expensive.”