Why The Japanese Language Has So Many Words for 'Time'

Anna Sherman, author of "The Bells of Old Tokyo," talks about the Japanese interpretation of time and trying to understand the eleven dimensions of string theory. 

Anna Sherman, Writing For,
the bells of old tokyo module

When I first moved to Japan, I worked as a researcher for an architect. For two years I walked the city every day, especially its older districts, taking notes. I wrote "The Bells of Old Tokyo" in part because I wanted to understand the things I saw: not just landmarks, but the city’s secret spaces, its hidden histories.

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Then a chance meeting with a Japanese physicist, Hashimoto Koji, left me with a question: why does the Japanese language have so many words for ‘time,’ when English has so few? Koji told me that roughly a third of the world’s string theorists were Japanese.

I had vague memories of string theory from popular science magazines; claims that the universe exists not in the three dimensions that we see (plus time, the fourth dimension) but in eleven dimensions.

One dimension is a dot.

Two dimensions is a line, a square, a triangle, a circle.

Three dimensions is a cube, a pyramid, a sphere.

For each person I interviewed, time was something other, something alien.

Four is a cube, moving through time. A pyramid, moving through time. A sphere, moving through time.

Five dimensions is…? And what was six? Seven? And on up?

Non-believers said string theorists were crazy, because—if they existed, where were those missing dimensions? And how could you prove they were real? String theorists said the missing dimensions had curled up inside themselves, like fiddlehead ferns, so small no one could see them. Critics said the string theorists might be brilliant, but that when you became a string theorist, you joined a cult that worshiped the invisible. It wasn’t science, it was science fiction.

“Wow,” I said.

“In Japan, string theorists are ordinary,” Koji said, shrugging off my amazement.

“And you study—what? The universe? … Time?”

What, I wondered, was the Japanese word for 'time'? I only knew how to ask about hours on a clock; about minutes and seconds. About weeks, months, years.

At home, I opened a huge old thesaurus that my Japanese teacher loaned me; it had belonged to her father, who had been born in the nineteenth-century. The book thudded open, its old pasteboard endpapers dissolving in my hands, leaving brown dust all over my palms and fingertips.

When I found the section on time, the sheer number of words amazed me. They roosted underneath sections for the Past and the Present and the Future; alit in subsections for Cyclical Time and Approximate Time, and flew off the page after the entries for Irregular Time and Fixed Time.

Some expressions reach backward into ancient Chinese literature: 'uto, seisō, kōin.' From Sanskrit, Japanese borrowed a vocabulary for vastness, for the eons that stretch out past imagination toward eternity: 'kō.' Sanskrit also lent a word for time’s finest shaving, the 'setsuna.' From English, 'ta-imu' was borrowed: unsubtle and functional, 'ta-imu' is used for stopwatches and races.

Time could be calculated with the word used for tots of sake, which also described short-term contracts for itinerant labourers; in the lengths that bamboo joints grew; in water rushing through a dam’s narrowing gap. It could be smashed up, stretched out, lost, jumped into, and borrowed. It was a flower, a snapped thread, waves scraping away the shoreline, a dewdrop.

Why are there so many words for time?

I put that question to different Tokyoites—Japanese artists, scientists, historians—to hear what they thought time was. The scientists quoted classical poetry; the artists and poets referred to equations.  For each person I interviewed, time was something other, something alien.

No answer was ever the same, but one idea did recur, in conversation after conversation: time equals one human life.

And these human lights flicker on and off against the backdrop of the great city, its fire-escapes and temples, its play parks and bridges and skyscrapers.


Anna Sherman is the author of "The Bells of Old Toyko" (Picador, 2019). 

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