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!)