Edo Calendars

Early Japanese Days

Japanese do not seem to have had names for their individual named days in quite the same way as is currently adopted.  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.

Another Japanese time system was known as rokuji, which meant literally “six hours” (i.e. roku – 6 and ji – hours).  In this system each day was divided into the following six periods:

  1. Shincho – morning
  2. Nitchu – afternoon
  3. Nichibotsu – evening
  4. Shoya – early night
  5. Chuya – midnight or Hanya – “half night”
  6. Koya – after night

According to some sources, this system was derived from the Buddhist religious practice of praying to Amida, at six intervals throughout the day, a practice which was known as rokuji no raisan and literally means “to pay homage at the six hours”.

Early Japanese Grouping of Days (Modern “Weeks”)

The division of the time during the Edo Period into weeks or fortnights (fourteen nights) was not known, nor was there anything which even in a remote way corresponds to it. However, the Japanese did divide the year (360 days) into 24, called sekki, with the following names:

  • Shokan “small chill” – around January 6 when a winter chill starts
  • Daikan “big chill” – around January 20 when the chill becomes severe
  • Risshun “start of spring” – around February 4, the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar
  • Usui “rain water” – around February 18 when the snow melts away
  • Keichitsu “going-out of worms” – around March 6 when worms start to come out of the ground after a long hibernation
  • Shunbun “spring equinox” – around March 21 when winter is gone and spring starts
  • Seimei “clear and bright” – 15 days after the spring equinox
  • Koku-u “rain for harvests” – around April 21 when spring rain falls for the coming harvest season
  • Rikka “start of summer” – around May 6 when songs of summer begin
  • Shoman “half bloom” – around May 21 when flowers and plants start to come out
  • Boshu “seeds of cereals” – around June 5 when people start seeding
  • Geshi “reaching summer” – summer solstice – around June 21
  • Shohsho “small heat) – around July 7 when the summer heat starts
  • Taisho “big heat” – hottest time of the year – around July 23
  • Risshu “start of autumn” – around August 8 when signs of autumn can be seen
  • Shosho “keeping out of the heat” – around August 23 when the summer heat is forgotten
  • Hakuro “white dew” – around September 7 when drops of dew can be seen on the ground
  • Shubun “the autumnal equinox” – around September 23 when day and night are of equal length everywhere
  • Kanro “cold dew” – around October 8 when temperature becomes lower
  • Soko “frosting” – October 23 when it starts frosting
  • Ritto “start of winter” – around November 8 when the winter season starts
  • Shosetsu “small snow” – around November 23 when a light snowfall can be seen
  • Taisetsu “big snow” – around December 8 when it starts snowing hard
  • Toji “reaching winter” – around December 22 when day time becomes the shortest in the year.

At the commencement of the Meiji Period a holiday called Ichi-roku was introduced on all the “ones” and “sixes” of the month, making a division of the months into five parts, but it was so evidently only a copy of the Western week that it was soon given up and a seven day week took its place.

In a nation where Shinto and Buddhist religion prevails with individual prayers at temples at any time of the day or night, Sunday is kept as a day of rest from official work and is devoted to recreation, all the government offices being closed on that day. Sunday in early Meiji was called Don-taku, an evident corruption of the Dutch Zontag. The Meiji Saturday half-holiday was also introduced in all the large cities. Most places of business were closed on Saturday afternoon, which it called Han-don or Half-Sunday.

Early Japanese “Months”

The year was divided into months – called setsu, which were real moons. They were numbered in serial order, and had no names like our months, except in poetry. There were twelve of these months, and, as they were all too short, a month was interpolated whenever the accumulated errors made the new year come a month too early, which was about every three years.

The twenty-four sekki had names describing the climate or agricultural activities, such as ‘Great Frost’ or ‘Seed Time’. Shinto festivals were based largely on this natural calendar. Superimposed on this system was the more formal lunar calendar which had been imported from China in AD 604.

These periods of about fifteen days each were called sekki. These sekki had  names, such as:

  • Risshun                        Early Spring
  • Kanro                            Cold Dew
  • Shokan                          Lesser Cold
  • Daikan                           Greater Cold

These were descriptive of the weather likely to occur during their continuance.

The new year always came in the last of January or the first of February. The year was further divided into four seasons and into twenty-four minor periods, which were one-twenty-fourth of three hundred and sixty-five days each.

During the Edo Period there were periodic attempts to reform the traditional calendar, partly under the influence of Western astronomy which had already been introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries. New Shogunal observatories were built in Edo and there was ongoing political struggle for control of the calendar between the Shogunate and the Imperial court.

A lunar month corresponds to just over 29 days in the solar calendar. According to the official Japanese lunar calendar, each year had a different sequence of twelve “dong” (30 day) and “short” (29 day) lunar months. This had to be adapted about every thirty months or so with an extra, “intercalary”, month (jun) added to synchronise with the seasons.

After calendar reforms in 1685, the government controlled an effective monopoly on the production of printed calendars for the coming year, granting licences to a limited number of publishers. Beginning in the 1720s, however, artists of the popular Ukiyo-e school began to design playful ‘picture calendars’ (e-goyomi) to be exchanged at the New Year, in which the sequence of long and short months for the coming year was hidden in part of the text or design of a colour print. As the eighteenth century progressed, these developed into evermore lavish surimono prints, using special effects such as metallic printing and embossing. Often surimono would include printed verses by the members of the poetry clubs that sponsored them and themes of the pictures expanded to include auspicious, zodiac, still-life and even erotic subjects.

Each month had 30 days, and was nominally made up of three ten-day weeks. The last day in each week was 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).

 Early Japanese Years

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.

From the seventh century to the present, Japan has used a series of era names called nengô (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 is flawed. 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 major events took place.

No new year name ever came into use on the first of the year, but was generally introduced after the year was well advanced, the year of the end and commencement of a new period always had two year names.

The Japanese adopted the complex Buddhist sexagesimal system of year identification from the Chinese in 604. In this calendar system, there are 10 “trunks” and 12 “branches” that combine to form 60 terms for counting the years.

For astrological and calendrical function, the names of these animals are written with different characters than are used to conventionally write their names.

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 Buddhist animals rotate through in 12-year cycles and the additional element of the trunks is eliminated.

In July 1892, Thomas Egleton wrote an article in the School of Mines Quarterly entitled “Ancient Methods of Recording Time in Japan” , stating:

“To use the Christian era would be to admit the supremacy of foreign religious ideas in a country where the mystery which surrounds the very presence of the Emperor makes him the popular object of worship, and would be utterly repugnant to the ideas which the people have of his sacred character. Besides the arrangement of the calendar into periods more or less near to each other, the appointing of year names, as they are called, by which these periods are designated, has always been considered amongst the Eastern nations as one of the signs and sacred rights of an independent sovereignty. To admit that any other custom of any other nation or nations could impose by right, or even by usage, a practice which would do away altogether with year names, would, both in Japan and China, take away one of the most dearly cherished rights of the semi-sacred Emperor, who not only promulgates the name which he has arbitrarily chosen amongst his own people, but imposes it on his vassals.”