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The Japanese calendars

Published on : 1 May 2020

1 - Introduction

It is not common, but sometimes and I would say fortunately we can find on certain ceramics or boxes a production date. This is most interesting for pieces made around Meiji period. This gives me the opportunity to discuss about the Japanese calendar systems. My objective is mainly to present a general view of the different systems and provide an easy access to converting tools.

When I say systems, there are in fact in Japan, 4 different ways of dating events.

2 – The Gregorian calendar

The most common is the Western way, called Gregorian calendar which is gradually being in use since the Meiji period. Everybody knows this modern calendar.

3 - The Japanese Imperial year system

The Kigen (紀元) or KoKi (皇紀) is based on the date of the legendary founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. It was first used in the official calendar in 1873. However, it never replaced Era names, and since World War II has been completely abandoned. It is seldom found on ceramics and I have seen only one, thanks to Sandra Andacht.

Here is a fine example (ID#2275) of dating using this Imperial year system.

於 蘭月亭 冩出也
Rangetsutei drew this in 2530 Imperial time - Year of the rabbit in Kutani - Ishikawa Prefecture - Kaga province - Great Japan
So it means in 2530-660 = in Year 1870.

4 - The lunisolar Chinese calendar

This system was introduced in Japan via Korea in the middle of the sixth century. It is/was used all over Asia. It is a sexagenary cycle made up of the “Ten Heavenly Stems” and the “Twelve Earthly Branches”, which make a revolving 60 years period. But in 1873, as part of Japan’s Meiji period modernization, the calendar based on the solar Gregorian calendar was introduced. In Japan today, this old Chinese calendar is completely ignored.

However the twelve Earthly branches are today commonly used to identify the sign of the year. We are then considering only a 12 years cycle which has nothing to do with a calendar.

During Meiji period and especially for calligraphy, many painters were using Chinese texts and there are few cases where we encounter this type of dating on ceramics or on the boxes.

This dating system is currently used together with the Nengo system (see next paragraph) during Meiji period which makes it easy to accurately date the pieces.

See a conversion table.

5 - The Era name or Nengō (年号) naming system

It is the official means of dating years in Japan, and virtually all government business is conducted using that system. It is also in general use in private and personal business. This system has been imported from China and has been in continuous use since AD 701. Since the Taishō Emperor’s nomination in 1912, each emperor’s reign has begun a new era. It is rather easy to remember:

  • Meiji from 1868 to 1912
  • Taisho from 1912 tp 1926
  • Showa from 1926 to 1989
  • Heisei from 1989 to 2019
  • Reiwa from 2019

Before Meiji, it is more difficult to remember and to convert into Western system as Era name has changed quite often. So today we are officially in Reiwa 2, (令和 二年) until May 1st, 2020. So, it means the year is changing based on the era anniversary and not January 1st. It makes exact dating a little more complicated.

明治十三年 辰四月吉日
Meiji ju san nen - Tatsu Shigatsu Kichijitsu
Meiji 13 - Good day of April in Dragon year

See the detailed conversion table from Meiji up to today.

I hope that this little overview of dating systems has been helpful. There are many similar cases in the data base.

Georges Bouvier April 2020