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So 明け方 means "dawn," but if looked at more closely, is the literal meaning of 明け方, "in the direction of dawn"?

I think this is wrong, but I can't remember which meaning of 方 is taken here.

Is it the meaning of 方 as 様子 or "state," as in "the state of dawn/light breaking?"

Also, what is the difference in tone and usage between 明け方 and 明け ( when 明け is used as "dawn")?

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明鏡国語辞典 lists it as an additional meaning (二6), おおよその時間。その時分。 What it lists as sense 二1 comes pretty close to its general meaning and how it is used here:

「その事をする方法・手段。また、その様子・有様。

Perhaps you could think of it like this?

作り方=how to make food

明け方=how it becomes bright=as it becomes bright=dawn

Pitch accent, see NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典

  ____
 あけか°た [=flat, か° is a nasal が (鼻音,ɳa)]
  _
 あけ

As for how they're different in meaning, there's a good explanation in the 語例解辞典.

【使い分け】

(1)「明け方」は、夜が開ける時間帯をいうのに対し、「夜明け」「明け」は夜が明けること、あるいはその時をいい、さらにそれを中心とする時間帯をいう場合もある。

(2)「夜明け」は、「アジアの夜明け」のように新しい時代、好ましい変革の到来を意味することもある。 [yoake can be used idiomatically in the sense of "dawn of a new age"]

【使い方】

(明け)

 深夜から明けにかけて暴走族が騒いでいる (this is about その時)

 明けの明星

(明け方)

 明け方が近く、雷がなった

 翌日の明け方に目的地についた (both are concerned with 夜が開ける時間帯)

Also, 明け seems to be used more in compounds (忌明け,休み明け,精進明け,梅雨明け,年明け,正月明け), while 明け方 is usually an individual word.夜明け (,perhaps because it is longer and a fully formed idea [??],) can be seen as an individual words in phrases such as 「夜明けにはまだ間がある」 or 「夜明けを待つ」

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I had thought it was the meaning of kata meaning 様子 but when I looked it up, this was not listed on tangorin so perhaps it is their inadequacy that caused my confusion. Thanks for your work. –  yadokari Jul 31 '13 at 20:40
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"明け方=how it becomes bright=as it becomes bright=dawn". While this is probably correct etymologically, it could potentially be misleading, since あけがた "dawn" and あけかた "how it becomes bright" are separate words in MJ. –  dainichi Aug 1 '13 at 23:32
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