IT'S NOT JUST A MATTER OF TIME

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Time, as in the relentless forward-ticking of our lives, is mostly a nuisance, a loose concept that was standardized about 120 years ago when railroads decided that there should be an official noon rather than just whenever the sun was overhead-ish.

It is the master of doctor appointments and movie startings, and arbitrary decisions that it's too late to phone someone on this or that coast. Time is daily grind minutiae.

Except when it represents something bigger.

Tomorrow morning, when we end daylight saving time by staging a countrywide 2 a.m. do-over, we will be participating in a 90-year tradition that has, throughout the world, been both a political maneuver and a statement of rebellion. A matter of life and death and a symbol of assimilation. An extra hour of sleep each fall that will only be lost again come spring.

Japan doesn't observe daylight saving.

This is noteworthy, because most industrialized nations do. It's a spot-check mark of a developed civilization, like paid vacation or your own version of "American Idol." Europe and the United States kicked off the concept during World War I as an energy-saving measure, to increase production and consumption by shifting the daylight to when we're awake.

Japan, however, doesn't participate in time changes and hasn't since a brief stint from 1948 to 1952. That experiment was a power play, enforced by occupying U.S. troops who thought Japanese clocks should march forward with the American ones 13 time zones away. When the Americans left, daylight saving did, too, and the Japanese haven't looked back since.

"They thought of daylight savings as a form of occupation," says David Prerau, a daylight saving expert who consults with governments around the world on time issues. Nearly 60 years later, they still do -- and have only recently begun exploring the idea of reinstating it.

China also doesn't observe time changes, but then again, it doesn't observe time zones, either. The entire country is set to Beijing, meaning 9 a.m. is still dark for some citizens and practically the middle of the afternoon for others.

It doesn't seem that surprising, considering. Actually, it seems appropriate -- Communist-style logic and efficiency, well-intentioned but ultimately a pain in the butt for 1.3 billion people.

Countries are defined by their people, by their food, by their exports. It stands to reason they could be defined by their keeping of time as well. And yet it seems so delightfully random and quirky when a region's personality matches up with its decision to save daylight or not, when we feel like we can read great meaning into what time it is in Nepal.

Which, incidentally, will always be on standard time, and will always be different from anywhere else in the world. In order to assert its independence and separation from surrounding countries, tiny Nepal put itself on the quarter-hour, meaning that if it's noon in Washington, it's 9:45 p.m. in Nepal. Pfft on you, India, China and Bangladesh.


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