Showa 40s vs 1970

I was listening to a podcast interview with a favorite author just now (Kakuta Mitsuyo if you’re wondering) and I came to a realization about Japanese and Western calendars. From Meiji onward, I have come to crave dates in Japanese reign years when using Japanese, crazy as it sounds – I want to ditch Western years altogether!

Why is this? Frankly, Western years take a mouthful to say and are much harder to pick up when you’re listening, especially if the speaker is talking quickly. 2009 becomes “the year two thousand nine.” Try 1999: “the year one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine!” Do you see the problem?

Well, many learners of Japanese hate the confusion of having a separate, less often used Japanese reckoning of years according to emperors’ reigns. The infamous Hirohito is known as the Showa emperor in Japan and the Showa period starts with his coronation in 1926. I was born in Showa 56 – 1981. Incidentally I know this because the high school where I taught my first year in Japan functioned on Japanese years and one needs to know one’s birthday! For most official forms, you are still expected to write your birthday in Japanese years. If you want to impress a functionary, learn this and write it proudly. They will be unnecessarily astounded.

In any case, the author was talking about her childhood and said “In the Showa 40s…” I actually sighed with relief! When the host breezed over that day’s date in Western years at the beginning of the podcast I had simply stopped listening, but Showa 40s – it just clicked. 1965-1975. It just makes sense to me somehow.

As you may know, I study the Meiji period (1868-1912). Specifically, it’s the Meiji 20s, or 1887-1897. I find myself writing dates as Meiji 20-something all the time. Why? I can’t explain it. It’s certainly in part because publication dates in the books I read are all in Meiji years – it was still the norm then to use Japanese years. But I can convert easily now from studying it for so long. So, why?

Really, it’s not me becoming accustomed to Japan. No normal Japanese person born after the Taisho period (1912-1926) would do such a thing. I think it’s much simpler: I am a nerd who studies literary history. It’s the sad truth. Well, a happy Heisei 23 to you all then!

(By the way, why no pre-Meiji reign years for me? They’re too short, numerous, and confusing. They sound the same. I just can’t take it. But if I studied early modern? I bet I’d be using Bunka-Bunsei like it’s 1821!)

2 thoughts on “Showa 40s vs 1970”

  1. Lol. As an early modernist, I am indeed starting to get a handle on the reign years. I think I still like using the Western years, since, as you say, the periods are so much shorter and there are so many of them. But, they’re important to know. The works I’m focusing on for my thesis right now were mostly published in Hôei 7 or Tenpô 3.

    When it comes to specific years, I’m perfectly happy with “Meiji 32” or “Taisho 10.” These have a certain romance to them, of seeing in the back of your book that the publication date has been written in the old/traditional manner. I have a pair of books, actually, that were published in Taisho 14. I got them at a Tokyo flea market.

    But when it comes to something like “the Showa 50s,” I’m afraid that really doesn’t connect for me. I don’t have any image in my mind of what the Showa 50s were like compared to the Showa 40s, for example, not the way that I have a pretty solid sense of what the 1940s vs the 1950s, the ’60s, the ’70s were like, aesthetically, in terms of music and fashion and overall aesthetic, in American culture. Since a Showa decade (e.g the Showa 30s) spans two Western decades (the 1950s and 1960s), it just confuses me. Are the Showa 30s defined by the poodle skirts of the 50s? Or the hippies of the 60s?

  2. My attitude to this issue is that the idea of decades having character in Western years is just as arbitrary as their having a character in reign years. I wouldn’t apply “Meiji 20s” to American history, but I also wouldn’t apply the cultural character (as we tend to imagine it, anyway) of American decades to Japanese history, or even to the history of, say, England. The postwar experience was so different for the countries involved that I think it’s impossible to define Showa 30s with hippies or the stereotypical American 50s. I would characterize the Showa 30s as post-Occupation reconstruction, probably. Just as the 20s were the depths of the Pacific War, defeat, and Occupation, and the first years of Showa being the crazy political repression in the run-up to the war itself.

    The Meiji 20s, really, have more in common than, say, 1890 and 1899, in the literary world. And they were begun in 1889 (Meiji 22) with the promulgation of the Constitution, so that also makes some sense to think of them as the decade of the Constitution run-up and aftermath. Or I could just be making excuses. But there are books and articles written about the Meiji 20s and 30s as having a distinct character, so I’m not the only one. I think of it less romantically and more historically – just as you might talk about the 1890s in American history.

    (As an aside, most books before the 80s seem to have Showa publication dates. And that also seems to be the period where it switches – I hear more “1980s bubble” and “1990s recession” than “late Showa” and “early Heisei.” I can’t explain it but there it is!)

    Anyway, highlights the arbitrariness of historical periods, doesn’t it? But then again, prior to the second half of Showa, you can argue that there was significant policy change with changing emperors, especially Meiji, Taisho, and Showa. So perhaps it does make sense to see them as periods of jarring change, and ones that don’t correspond with the beginning of Western decades – after all, 1868, 1912, and 1926 are all in the midst of a decade rather than the very edge, and it is a whole lot easier to say “early Meiji” rather than “1868-1888” or something like that. 🙂

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