Happy New Year! Welcome to the year 27!
Wait…27? Now, before you proclaim that I must still be feeling the effects of New Year's celebrations, it IS ACTUALLY the year 27 in Japan!
While Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873 i.e. the one that says this year is 2015, the Japanese date system of designating years as era names based on the reign of Emperors is commonplace. Each Emperor is designated an era name which commences the day the Emperor ascends to the throne and ends on the day of the Emperor's death.
The era name assigned to the current Emperor is ‘Heisei'. Japanese years are calculated by the number of years the Emperor has reigned. The year 2015 is the 27th year of the reigning Emperor, so this year is therefore ‘Heisei 27', commonly written as the first letter of the era name then year number, i.e. ‘H27′. If the era is obvious, such as the current date or in relation to an upcoming event, the letter may be left off completely, i.e. '27'.
The counting of Japanese years follows the Gregorian calendar with the year starting on January 1st and ending on December 31st, yet it would be a rare occurrence that the death of an Emperor conveniently conforms to these dates. When an Emperor dies mid-year, that year can therefore have two names. The year 1989, for example, can be referred to as “Shōwa 64” or “Heisei 1” as Emperor Shōwa passed away on January 7th during the 64th year of his reign. As the Japanese year always ends on December 31st, if an Emperor passes away towards the end of the year, the ascending Emperor's “first year of reign” will be very short.
It wasn't until 1868 that this “one reign, one era name” was adopted. Prior to that, different eras could be declared within a single Emperor's reign. The streamlining of the era calendar therefore has effectively only been in place over the reign of the last four Emperors.
While the use of the Gregorian calendar system is increasingly common, the traditional Japanese system demands that dates be referred to according to their era, and in fact, it is required for most official paperwork.
For example, when getting your Japanese driver's license or filling out forms at the City Hall, they are not interested in your Gregorian calendar date of birth. “What year were you born in Japanese years?” they will ask. With the interchanging of dates, it's not always easy for Japanese people to remember all of them either. That's where conversion tables or age charts come in – a chart that shows the Gregorian calendar year alongside the Japanese one. Diaries have one in the back for easy reference, and most Government offices will have one behind the counter to help you out if necessary. But if you are residing in Japan, it is always useful to know your date of birth in Japanese years.
This is what the one in my diary looks like.
The first column has the Japanese year, the second is the current age of a person born in that year, the third the Gregorian calendar year, and the last the Chinese lunar year. So if you look at the second column and find how old you are (or will be turning in the current year), you can easily determine your Japanese year of birth.
As a little cultural aside, the reigning Emperor is referred to as Tennō Heika (天皇陛下 ‘His Imperial Majesty the Emperor') or Kinjō Tennō (今上天皇 ‘The Reigning Emperor'), not the era name. The era name is what the Emperor is referred to posthumously. So, for example, the Emperor during the Meiji era is now posthumously known as “Emperor Meiji”. To refer to the reigning Emperor prematurely by their posthumous name is considered a faux pas.
So when in Japan, don't be confused that the year is missing two digits or that you have friends born in the year 1. A quick glance at your conversion table will clear things up, or you can just enjoy the illusion that you have gone back in time!
Happy New Year everyone! May your year 27 be filled with warmth, inspiration and new journeys! Happy adventuring!