Wristwatches and Miniature Clocks: The Gentle Pressure of Time in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor
Daniel Abiva Hunt
February 17, 2023
Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is about a woman, the Housekeeper, who works in the home of a man, the Professor, who suffered brain damage in a car accident decades ago and whose new memories last precisely eighty minutes before being erased forever. Very early in the novel, the Professor shows the Housekeeper his leather-strapped wrist watch, a “stylish foreign brand, quite out of keeping with the Professor’s rumpled appearance.” The Professor, a former math professor, uses the engraving of the number 284 to teach the Housekeeper about amicable numbers. At the same time, Ogawa uses the image of the wristwatch to teach the reader to pay close attention to time. Here is a man whose can’t form new memories. What need does he have for a wristwatch? Perhaps he uses the watch to track the eighty minutes intervals of his memory, but we are never told so, and in any event, he would forget what he was tracking at the end of each cycle. Other than the sentimental value it may hold, the Professor has no need for a timepiece.
In crafting stories, we always need to consider the ticking clock. In other words, we have to consider how long a character has to do what they need to do. If a character has all the time in the world, there will be a lack of pressure on the narrative, a lack of urgency in the story. This essay examines how Yoko Ogawa uses time to exert pressure on the narrative in The Housekeeper and the Professor, because while this is a narrative that deals explicitly with a ticking clock—the Professor’s eighty-minute memory—the story itself doesn’t seem to focus too intently on such an obvious clock. The pressure of each eighty-minute interval doesn’t feel overtly dramatic, mostly because we are told the story from the Housekeeper’s point of view, not the Professor’s. The story skips through multiple eighty-minute cycles and days, weeks, and seasons. This is not Memento where we are in the point of view of the character suffering anterograde amnesia, where each memory cycle is of upmost importance, the inevitable conclusion to the character’s perception of a series of events. Here, the Professor’s memory cycle is not a primary source of narrative urgency in the novel. In fact, at glance, the novel doesn’t seem to have a powerful sense of urgency. The story begins with the Housekeeper starting her job at the Professor’s, a job which, in theory, could last years. Ogawa, however, makes certain choices to ensure the pressure of time exists within the narrative, such as the pixilation of scenes that contain inherent “miniature clocks” to exert pressure on the characters within the confines of the scene, and the use of an authoritative, retrospective narrator that creates narrative distance, allowing Ogawa to make narratorial insertions to both frame scenes and remind the reader of the pressure of time.
When writing stories, we often think of a single clock, something that exerts pressure to increase the urgency of the narrative. In novels, there may be one big clock, looming in the distance like Big Ben—the conclusion of a road trip, the end of a summer—but given the structure of a novel, often made up of chapters or episodes or sections, smaller time pressures—miniature clocks—can be used to create urgency, such as events the characters are looking forward to or tasks the characters have to get done. Because of the almost episodic structure of The Housekeeper and the Professor, Ogawa uses miniature clocks throughout to maintain urgency in the narrative. The most obvious example is the baseball game that frames the untitled chapter starting on page 83 of the novel. In his previous life, the Professor was a fan of the Hanshin Tigers. When the Housekeeper acquires tickets to the game, all the characters begin looking forward to the event, and thus, we, the readers, anticipate the event, creating urgency in the narrative. Furthermore, the Housekeeper mentions the Tigers only play twice a season in their town. She says, “if you let the chance go by, it was a long wait until the next game.” Now, Ogawa adds a level of scarcity to the event; the event cannot be easily replaced, repeated, or rescheduled. This increases the pressure of time. The characters have to get to the game, and anything that gets in the way becomes an obstacle to this goal. Moreover, not only does this event give the characters, and thus the reader, something to anticipate, once the characters arrive at the game, time continues to play a role, because of course, the game contains a built-in clock based around innings. During the game, the narrator tracks the innings, which adds pressure on all the action during the game, heightening the characters’, and thus the reader’s awareness, of the events surrounding them, as we all know the game, at some point, will end—and once more Ogawa increases the pressure by having the starting pitcher of the Tigers throw a no-hitter through the first eight innings, which in tune with the leisurely tone of the novel, isn’t used to count down to some dramatic revelation but to simply provide tension, to help create a sense of drama in the moment.
It’s interesting how Ogawa finds ways to create miniature clocks in the narrative, because of course, many events would have occurred in the timeframe of the story that might not have a built-in clock like a baseball game. But the retrospective narrator, and thus Ogawa, uses the manipulation of time to her advantage, speeding up and slowing down the narrative to reach the moments with the greatest in-moment drama—like the baseball game—which usually contains some element of time sensitivity and pressure.
Another example is the joint celebration for the Professor winning a math award and Root’s birthday (Root is the son of the Housekeeper, who joins her at the Professor’s house every day after the Professor demands so, because children shouldn’t be alone). Once again, we have an event the characters are anticipating—the party—which creates pressure on the narrative to arrive at this event. At the same time, additional urgency is created through the Housekeeper and Root’s search for a gift for the professor, a rare baseball card. The ticking clock of the party turns the simple task of locating the card into a search of utmost urgency, as the Housekeeper and Root encounter obstacle after obstacle, card shop after card shop, so when the day of the party approaches, and Root finally finds the card in a lost pack in an abandoned shed—and even though Ogawa created this shed and placed the card into this pack for the sake of the narrative—we feel the sense of relief and joy the characters feel, because Ogawa was also able to create the pressure of time.
In the final chapter, which reports the events of the birthday party, Ogawa uses another “trick” to increase the pressure of time; she has the narrator expressly tell the reader that this is the end. Before the scene begins, the retrospective narrator steps in and says, “It was special because we celebrated with the Professor, and because it turned out to be the last evening the three of us would ever spend together.” With such assertion, we are encouraged to read the scene differently, knowing it’s their final evening together at the Professor’s house. We know something must happen to disrupt the narrative dynamic—the Housekeeper, the Professor, and Root as surrogate family—before it actually happens, and like a ticking clock or a time bomb, this puts more pressure on the narrative, as we know things are about to change dramatically.
Of course, this narratorial assertion is only possible because of Ogawa’s choice of narrator. Here, we have a first-person, retrospective narrator, and the choice itself puts the pressure of time on the narrative. There is a reason, a narratorial occasion, for telling this story, and this creates narrative distance between when the events of the story occurred and when the story is being told, which in a way, places a clock on the narrative, because the Housekeeper must sit down at some point and tell this story, and thus become the narrator and thus end the narrative. The narrator never says anything as extreme as, “The Professor will die in [x] days.” There’s no strict time limit ever placed on the narrative, but the use of the retrospective narrator and the retrospective assertions the narrator makes throughout remind of us the distance between the narrator and the events, and the fact the story will inevitably conclude.
Sometimes, when writing a story, we don’t want to reveal the artifice of the narrative, that this is, indeed, a story being told. We don’t want to hold the reader at a distance. We want to invite them in. We want them to feel the immediacy of the narrative events. In The Housekeeper and the Professor, Ogawa use of a retrospective narrator, and her narratorial insertions and asides, don’t necessarily hold the reader at arm’s length. In fact, the retrospection completely disappears for pages at a time, the narrator taking a backseat to scene, the narrative distance collapsing down to allow the reader to experience a sense of immediacy in the story events, the present action of the past. At the same time, the retrospective voice turns up at times to let us know things to anticipate or when things are coming to a head, as it does at the beginning of the birthday party chapter, before going back in time, in scene, to show us how we got there. The retrospection reminds us that these are events that have already occurred, have been considered, and are now being told for a particular reason. The retrospection shapes the story in a way that creates urgency, which, like a ticking clock, applies pressure on the narrative. Ogawa uses the retrospection to establish cap, an end point, a light at the end of the narrative tunnel, a different reason to keep reading.
When Root starts learning math from the Professor, he wonders how one would find all the prime numbers if numbers extend to infinity. The Professor says, “when you get to big numbers—a million or ten million—you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart…a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any…the sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over…until you see it at least, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water.” Like the search for prime numbers in the infinite desert, stories without the pressure of time can feel like a wasteland, a mirage of a narrative, a story that diminishes in urgency and tension the further the reader ventures. Yoko Ogawa shows us how to create the pressure of time to sustain a novel-length work. She doesn’t use an almighty looming clock—this isn’t the Twenty Fifth Hour or Memento—but she is always mindful of time throughout the book. She tracks the changing seasons, the Tiger’s playoff push, the time bomb of the tenth blue star, the Professor’s diminishing memory, and she embeds miniature clocks and deploys the first-person retrospective narrator to constantly remind us of the gentle and unstoppable march of time.
 Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, trans. Stephen Snyder (New York: Picador, 2009), 16.
 Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, 83
  Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, 165
 Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, 63-64