The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time by Anna Sherman - review by Christopher Ross

Christopher Ross

Winding Back the Clock

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time


Picador 337pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Last year the British press reported that UK schools were removing analogue clocks in exam halls because teenage students could not understand them. Apparently they had grown up reliant on digital devices and had lost (or never learned) the skill of reading a clock face. The story turned out to be substantially untrue, but the idea is suggestive. How do we tell the time and what significance, if any, does the perception of time passing have upon our consciousness or sense of identity? In The Bells of Old Tokyo, Anna Sherman, a US-born, Oxford-trained classicist who moved to Tokyo in 2001, claims that ‘Tokyo is one vast timepiece’. Her debut work, the book is a subtle, beautifully written meditation on the transition from the fixed, hierarchical life of old Edo (as Tokyo used to be known) to the anything-goes dynamism of the modern mega-metropolis the city has become. The remnants of the past, its surviving traces – like the hands of an analogue clock face – are still visible and in motion if you know how and where to look.

In the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, time was communicated by the ringing of strategically positioned temple bells. Hours were elastic units of time, not simply equal divisions, and were sometimes longer or shorter, depending on the season or stage of the day. Hours were accorded a sign from the

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