European Clocks Appear

Chronology of Early Clock Imports

Regarding the introduction of clocks into Japan, there are different traditional stories but none can be taken as absolute fact. However, Western travellers did write of their early contact with the Japanese.


Some say it was in the early part of the 15th century and others quote 16th.  The oldest known reference is in a book (dated early 16th century): Biography of Yoshitaka Ouchi-ki which tells of the existence of a clock.

“Among several gifts from India an instrument is included, which controls the 12 hours, and rings during the day and night.”

This reference coincides with the period when St. Francis Xavier, a missionary from Portugal, arrived in Japan in 1541 to propagate religion.  He proceeded to Yamaguchi in Suwo, where he applied to the then Magistrate Yoshitaka Ouchi for permission to start his missionary work, and he then presented the Official with a mechanical clock. This is arguably the oldest on record.

This gift, from the Portuguese Viceroy of India, was made in order to obtain an agreement granting the Jesuits permission to teach and practise the Roman Catholic religion in that district. It was most likely a small striking lantern dock, with verge escapement and weight driven, available and popular at that time throughout Europe.

Referring to the incident some 340 years later (1880), the following was translated at a Meiji government office from the French Nihon-Seikyo-Shi (History of Christianity in Japan), written by Jean Crasset in 1689

“…it was decided that the gifts from the viceroy of India, and Xavier, the missionary from Goa, which were originally intended for the Emperor and the Shogun were now to be presented to the Lord of Yamaguchi. These included one ‘jimei-sho’ (time-telling machine), some musical instruments, and other European products not previously seen in Japan. The Priest started from Yamaguchi Prefecture accompanied by Friar Fernandes and a Japanese, taking with them the gifts Xavier had previously left at Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, while returning from Kyoto.

At that time Yamaguchi City was the center of culture west of Kyoto, and was informally known as “Little Kyoto.”

Lord Yamaguchi accepted the gifts and letters from the Viceroy of India and the missionary from Goa, and he thanked Xavier heartily for introducing such exotic things to Japan. On the same day, Xavier was sent a great amount of money but he refused it. The Lord was astonished to find that, in contrast to the greedy priests of his own country, European priests did not accept money.”


Nobunaga Oda was one of the earliest people in Japan to be associated with Western clocks. A document written by Bradley Louis Froice in 1569 states:

“Koremasa Wada asked me to bring the alarm clock because Nobunaga wanted to see it. Nobunaga was in the chamber with a few young samurai. He was pleased with the clock and wished to have it, although he thought it too complicated to use. He then invited me to his room and twice served me tea in a porcelain cup.”

Presumably the clock was similar to a present day table clock. Nobunaga met Bradley Organtino, a Jesuit missionary, and talked about various matters, including erecting a splendid seminary in Azuchi, a castle town.


Later in the 19th year of Tensho (A.D. 1591) four Japanese envoys, who returned from their European mission following an audience with the Pope, proceeded to Shuraku-dai, Kyoto, accompanied by a foreign missionary to pay respects to Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Samurai of Kyushu, to whom they presented a clock.

The senior envoy presented a striking clock to Hideyoshi as a gift. Particulars of this clock are not known but from Ieyasu and Clocks from Nihon Seikyo-Shi it states:

“With the return to Japan of Msgr. Rodriguez, who was the interpreter for the former as well as the new shogun, anxiety was alleviated. The priest explained that the delay in his arrival was due to a storm at sea and on behalf of the primate he presented to the shogun a jimei-sho showing the motion of the sun and the moon. The Shogun was pleased with this and hung it in the turret of Fushimi Castle where the people looked up at it with admiration.”

A further article entitled Nihon Krishitan Shumon Shi (Christian History in Japan, 1606) as translated by Kogoro Yoshida:

“…during that time, Msgr. Rodriguez journeyed to Kyoto concerning a ship coming from China, as had been customary each year in the life-time of Taiko, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1598). Msgr. Rodriguez was treated well by the Shogun and, in the presence of the District Chief, a beautiful clock was presented to him showing the phases of the sun and moon and the month and the date.”


Mentioned in Nichio Tsuko Shi (The History of Friendly Relations between Japan and Europe) by Shigetoma Koda, a gold clock was presented to Ieyasu by a delegate of the Viceroy of Goa:

“In 1611 it was decided to send to Japan Don Nuno Ritomaiyoru, the commander of the fleet, as a deputy of the Viceroy of Goa. The fleet missed Nagasaki and landed at Kagoshima, and proceeded to Sunpu with the guidance of the Shimazu clan. The procession included 48 horses. All attendants including the Negroes wore velvet uniforms, and, as the band often played along the way of the march, it must have been truly beautiful. The presents for Ieyasu were rare and valuable things; among them 10 rolls of woollen cloth embroidered with fine thread, 60 kilograms, or 100 kin, of fine selected silk, an exquisite gold cup, a gold clock, and jewels.”


The above two clocks are no longer in existence but a clock is preserved in the Toshogu Shrine on Kuno Mountain, in Shizuoka.

Four years prior to 1613, Don Rodrigo, the Viceroy of the Philippines completed his term and was returning home via Nobispan, a Spanish colony.  His ship was caught in a storm and wrecked on the coast of Japan, at Kishiwada, Naniwa-mura, Isumi-gun, Chiba Prefecture. This was on 30 September 1609. Ieyasu offered him another ship, which was constructed by Anshin Miura on the seashore at Ito, and with this ship Don Rodrigo reached Spain safely. The Hans de Evalo clock was later presented to Ieyasu Tokugawa by the Spanish Emperor in appreciation for his generosity toward the Viceroy.

It is fortunate that this clock, made in the West four hundred years ago, has been kept in its original condition in Japan.

This clock was presented in 1613 to Shogun Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, by an envoy from the Governor of Mexico. This is the oldest clock in existence in Japan and was purported to be made by Hans de Vald (or Evalo) of Madrid in 1581.  However, recent research on the clock and the production of a replica carried out by Johan ten Hoeve (West Dean, UK) and David Thomson (AHS and former curator of horology at the British Museum), discovered the clock was made in Brussels in 1573.  See detailed article, Antiquarian Horology Society Journal, Dec 2014, describing this clock and its true origins.

Image 14b

Author Ashley Strachan with Ochiai Hidekuni, Governor and Chief Priest of the Toshogu Shrine, October 2015 examining the replica soon after delivery to the shrine.

Clock description:

  • mechanism of iron
  • spring driven movement
  • outer brass case engraved with hairline pattern
  • dial of 12 hours with Roman numerals
  • 8” or 200 mm high

In the Keicho era (towards the end of the 16th century) many clocks were imported and used by Iyeyasu in his Yedo and Sumpu castles.


An essay in the Nanban Sarasa  reports on The History of Iemitsu Tokugawa:

“The records of Dai-yu-in, (the posthumous name of Iemitsu Tokugawa), show that a jimei-sho was among the tribute paid by the Dutch on 28 January 1644, and also noted, on 1 December 1645, is a netsuke-jimei-sho which may have been a clockwatch. Recorded too was one gold netsuke-jimei-sho presented to the Chief Counselor of State, Dainagon, who later became the fourth shogun, letsuna, and, in 1651, a gold netsuke-jimei-sho was presented.”


From Dutch Trading Records the following is recorded:

“In 1651, a gold clockwatch worth 272 florin was presented, and within the year a clockwatch in a yellow amber case, worth 97 florin, was presented to the successor.”

  Another document records “that a large circular table clock of golden colour, with a single hand, worth 132 florin was presented to the shogun.”


In a book written in 1704, there is mention of a gift of a “Netsuke-Clock” to the Third Shogun Iyemitsu.  This Netsuke-clock must have been a watch, and most likely was the first of a kind imported.