Section Two: Cultural Essays
= Calendar & Telling Time =
Unlike the Christian West, which uses computation based on the birth of Jesus Christ from which to date events, or the Ancient Romans who used the founding of the city as their pivotal date, or the Muslims who date everything from the Hegira, the Japanese have no single date to use. Actually, they could have used the mythical foundation of the empire in 660 BC, but in Period they never did so formally. From the seventh century down to the present, Japan has used a series of era names called nengô (lit. "year number"), assigning events to a year within that era. From time to time, usually due to some great auspicious event or to end a bad era after a particular bad calamity, an emperor proclaims a new nengô. Some nengô span several reigns; some reigns saw many nengô come and go.
The system has a flaw. The longer one's history gets, the harder it is to put things into historical context without having recourse to a list of era names and their volume of years. Even historically, people found it difficult to keep track of era names and when things happened. Was Emperor Horikawa enthroned in Kanji 1 or in Ôtoku 3? And if this year is the year of the Battle of Sekigahara (Keichô 5), how many years ago was that? (Ôtoku 3, and it was 514 years ago.)
In the 955 years between the institution of the nengô system in 645 and the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, there were 194 nengô, for an average of one every 4.92 years.
The sexagesimal system
The Japanese adopted the complex sexagesimal system of year identification from the Chinese in 604. In this calendar system, there are 10 "trunks" and 12 "branches" which combine to form 60 terms for counting the years. These 60 years cycle over and over, so that since 1500 was Mizu-no-to U ("[the Year of the] Hare, Younger Brother of Water"), then 1561 and 1622 were also.
Although it may at first seem cumbersome, it would be good to remember the basics of this system, for with it one can also identify hours of the day, days of the week, and so on. First we must look at the "ten trunks." These trunks represent aspects of the five elements, namely wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Five of the ten trunks represent the "elder brother" (e) of the five elements while the remaining five represent the "younger brother" (to) of the elements.
The ten trunks are: for wood, Ki-no-e and Ki-no-to (Elder Brother of Wood and Younger Brother of Wood); for fire, Hi-no-e and Hi-no-to (Elder Brother of Fire and Younger Brother of Fire); for earth, Tsuchi-no-e and Tsuchi-no-to (Elder Brother of Earth, Younger Brother of Earth); for metal, Ka-no-e and Ka-no-to (Elder Brother of Metal and Younger Brother of Metal); and for water, Mizu-no-e and Mizu-no-to (Elder Brother of Water and Younger Brother of Water). The chart at left shows their relationships. These ten elements can be written one of two ways: with the full kanji that literally spell out the phrase, or with a single "shorthand" kanji which has the same reading as the full phrase. In the chart at left, the kanji in the parentheses are the "shorthand" versions typically used.
The twelve branches are the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, namely: ne (rat), ushi (ox), tora (tiger), u (hare), tatsu (dragon), mi (snake), umma (horse), hitsuji (goat), saru (monkey), tori (cock), inu (dog), and i (boar).
These two units combine to form compounds such as Kanoe inu ("Year of the Dog, Elder brother of metal"). Japan and China still use a simplified form of this system, where the zodiac animals rotate through in 12-year cycles and the additional element of the trunks is eliminated.
The large chart in Figure 3 (below) shows the full cycle of sixty combinations with the ten trunks
and twelve branches. Number sixty-one is identical to number
one, i.e., "Kinoe ne -- Elder brother of wood, rat. "
For those who are curious, the year 2001 is Kanoto : MI, "Year of the snake, younger brother of metal" (number 18 on the chart). The year 1600, the year the Battle of Sekigahara was fought, was Kanoé NEH, "Year of the rat, elder brother of metal" (number 37 on the chart).
Click here for a chart detailing the entire period from 645 to 2008, year by year, listing the era name and the sexagesimal names in English. To see the same chart with the Japanese text, click here. This chart require a Japanese-capable browser to display properly.
Months, weeks, and days
In Europe, the equinoces and solstices mark the beginning of the four seasons; in China and Japan, however, they fall dead in the center of seasons.
Generally speaking, the Japanese calendar follows the lunar cycle. The first lunar month of the year is when the Sun enters the sign of the fish (sometime between January 20 and February 19, typically around February 5). One year consists of 12 months, so each year has 360 days.
The months are generally either just numbered (e.g., First Month, Second Month, etc.) or are called by one of several colorful variants.
On years in which the sun still hasn't entered the Fish by February 19, a thirteenth, intercalar month is added, bringing the year to 390 days in number.
If there is an extra month in any year, it is called by the name of the month in which the sun remains in the same sign, with the prefix Uru~, so if the month stays in Kaminazuki too long, there is an Uru-Kaminazuki.
It is not a very efficient system.
Each month has 30 days, and is made up of three 10-day weeks. The last day in each week is taken to be a general day of rest. The first day of each month is called Tsuitachi, and the last day -- a bigger deal of a "day off" than the tenth and twentieth -- is called Misoka. The last day of the year is called Ô-Misoka ("Great Misoka").
Japanese do not seem to have had names for their individual days in quite the same way we in the West think of names for days of the week. Someone would not say "We attack on Wednesday" -- rather, they seem to have used the date (e.g., "We attack on the fifteenth") or perhaps even the phase of the moon. More than one source suggests that they may have used the Chinese reading of the names of the ten trunks (rather then using them as references to their position as elder or younger brothers of the five elements), namely Kô, Otsu, Hei, Tei, Bo, Ki, Kô, Shin, Jin, and Ki, although this is not certain.
The sexagesimal cycle itself as also been used for the days, beginning at the first day of the year, so that every two months the cycle repeats. In this instance, the first day of the year is Kinoe ne, or "Day of the Rat, Older Brother of Wood."
Japanese Year and Era Chart
2008 -- 戊子 : -- 平成二十年
戊子 = Dog + Rat = (iinu) + (nii)
平成 = keisei (emperor reign)
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keywords: hagira sexagesimal system