Learn Hiragana

Years in Japanese and Eras

Saturday, March 11, 2017
This post is being written in 2017, a year. Think of it, it's a pretty big number, isn't it? Over 2000. If you were to give 12 months 12 different names, that's easy, 7 weekdays, 7 different names, also easy, 4 seasons, 4 names, very easy. But 2017 different names is kind of ridiculous, isn't it? Sure the Japanese have a very simple, normal way to call their years?

Well... yeah. They do. Kind of.

Unlike seasons and weekdays, and just like Japanese months, years in Japanese rely Japanese numbers and a counter to work. It's all very simple, without major surprises:
  • ichinen 一年 (1年)
    Yeah one.
  • ninen 二年 (2年)
    Year two.
  • san'nen 三年 (3年)
    Year three.

And it goes on and on until ni sen jyuu nana nen 二千十七年, or 2017年 as it's more often written.

With this I'd like to </post>. You can check out the Japanese number in the links above, all you need is to throw a nen 年 suffix and you'd be done, but sadly the Japanese language strikes again. There has to be a gotcha.

In this case, the gotcha is tied with Japanese culture, specifically the part of the Japanese culture that made calendars out of "eras," such as the Shouwa era, which work in a complete different way to our friend 2017 over there.

昭和63年, the 63rd Year of the Shouwa Era, or 1988 in Gregorian years, as shown in the anime Boku Dake ga Inai Machi 僕だけがいない町

(The rest of the article explains how it works, if you only want to know their equivalents, check this convertion table for nengou 年号)

Years and Calendars

Before we talk about Japanese eras I'd like to make a point about the number 2017. It's current year of what's called the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar in the world. Of this world, and as of currently.

Now, this calendar is pretty cool and all but it has to have begun somewhere. So, in the past, before it became widely used, it was not widely used at all, which meant people had to use something else instead of the Gregorian calendar and most of the world would have used something else instead of "2017" to say the current year.

If you have ever read a piece of fiction that deals with some very foreign or alien societies and culture you may have noticed they don't use the Gregorian calendar at all because that calendar never reached them. Example, in Youjo Senki 幼女戦記 there is an "unified year" instead of just year. In some space-y sci-fi works you may notice some "galactic year" or "universal year" or "imperial year" or whatever.

Why is this important? Because that's what happens in Japanese. They have imperial years, so it's like saying "year X of the Y empire of Japan" or "year X of the Y emperor." It sounds like something you'd see in fiction, but it actually happens.

I'm not sure if it's because Japan is an island or because they are slow to drop customs, I don't know, I don't study history, but the deal is that, even though most of the world have already stopped using their non-Gregorian calendars, Japan has yet to stop using theirs.

They still use the Japanese years. They did not drop their calendar.

But they did not refrain from using the Gregorian calendar either. It'd be stupid not to jump on the Gregorian bandwagon with globalization and international commerce at stake.

So what they did, believe it or not, was to start using both calendars. Yep. That's right. Both of them. Why not?

Because it's confusing as fuck, that's why not.

One of the doubts many Japanese students and office workers have now, because of this, is whether they should write a date in a document with Gregorian years or the Japanese years, because it's all mixed up.

Fortunately, Japan realizes this is kind of retarded, so they will probably stop using Japanese years and eras altogether in the next decades, or maybe next century, but as of now, they use both.

And, yes, it is a pain in the ass to learn the Japanese eras. Some Japanese people don't actually know the Japanese years but they can write Gregorian years. Because Gregorian years are linear and simple while Japanese years are just plain fuckery.

You'll see what I mean.

The Japanese Eras

Lately, the Japanese eras are named after the emperor of Japan. Yes, Japan still has emperors. England has a queen, so shut up. The emperor starts reigning, his era starts, he stops reigning, his era ends, some new emperor starts reigning, new era starts. That's how it goes.

So far, this happened four times. So the following are the recent eras in Japan, or nengou 年号:
  • heisei 平成
    1989 forward
  • shouwa 昭和
  • taishou 大正
  • meiji 明治

Before meiji there was the "Edo period", edo jidai 江戸時代, which had some more arbitrary starts and ends for eras that made them practically impossible to follow.
  • keiou 慶応
  • genji 元治
  • bunkyuu 文久
  • man'en 万延

Oh boy, those eras sure are short! Look at it, it took 4 whole eras to go through mere 8 years. But it's alright, there shouldn't be many more years left, right?
  • edo 江戸
    (Gintama 銀魂 happens sometime in this era)

Yeah, no, fuck that.

So up to meiji, learning the Japanese eras is like trying to remember the start and end of the mandates of your last 4 presidents, except they are arbitrary mandates, until they die, and not just 4 or 8 years per mandate.

But before the meiji era it's like it changes every time a season 3 of some anime is released. It's totally random and unpredictable. Some events marked the change of eras, alright, but I'm just trying to write a date here, I don't want to try to remember when was an attack somewhere in the XIX century that made the emperor change the era because some castle was burnt with fire. Nobody remembers that.

It's true. Most people will know when the heisei era started, because it's current era. And a lot of people will remember when the shouwa 昭和 era started, because a lot of people were born in that era. But before that, it gets a lot less relevant and a lot less memorable. Which is why all Edo period eras can be just referred to as the "Edo period" which begins in 1600.

Using Eras in Japanese-Style Dates

Now that we got through all this, let's see the way those eras are actually used to show the current year in Japanese.
  • heisei ni jyuu kyuu nen 平成29年
    Year 29 of the Heisei era.

Did that make sense to you? No? Well, the Heisei era starts in 1989. So 1989 is year 1. 1990 is year 2. 1990 + 27 = 2017, reapplying that, year 2 + 27 = 29. Thus, 2017 is year 29 of Heisei.

Does that feel like a major pain in the ass to you? Yeah. It is.

So the year 1989 is heisei ichi nen 平成1年, or heisei gan'nen 平成元年, "the first of year of the Heisei era." Before that, 1988 would be shouwa roku jyuu san nen 昭和63年, "the 63th year of the Shouwa era." And so on.

If that doesn't already sound like it's tremendously mendoukusai to remember for you yet, worry not, because it gets worse!

Shouwa Ichi Nen 昭和1年 - The Worse

There is actually no shouwa ichi nen 昭和1年, "the first year of Shouwa era," only shouwa ni nen 昭和2年, "the second year of the Shouwa era." (1927)

Now you might be asking yourself one of these two questions: first, how is this even possible? You can't have a second year of something without having a first year of something. By all means it makes no sense. Second, why did this happen?

Well that's because these eras end when the emperor's reign ends (aka he dies). And the emperor of the taishou 大正 era happened to depart from the world of the living on Christmas day, which left for the shouwa gan'nen 昭和元年, "start year of the Shouwa era" mere 7 days of the year to... well, be current era.

So instead of 1926 being called the first year of the Shouwa era, what exists is only the 15th year of the Taishou era, and Shouwa only really starts in its second year.

Yeah, who knew such an arbitrary year-marking system that may start and end an era randomly any day of the year could have this kind of drawback. What a surprise. You're welcome.

Gregorian Calendar vs. Japanese Calendar

One last thing is, remember that I said the Japanese use both calendars? Well, they have names for them, obviously.

In case you ever need to know, the "Gregorian calendar" is called seireki 西暦. It's written with the kanji for west, because it's considered western. (see cardinal directions). The word for the Japanese calendar is wareki 和暦.

So 2017年 is considered seireki 西暦 and 平成29年 is considered wareki 和暦,

Doubts? Post a comment below!