Time in Old Japan
I recently read an issue of Scientific American that was entirely devoted to the concept of time. There were a number of interesting articles in the magazine. One article addressed physicists' concept of time versus everyone else's. But the one that intrigued me the most described how different cultures perceived time differently. This article got me thinking about time and its measurement in old Japan and how it differed from the west. I thought it would be interesting to share with you the methods used to mark time in old Japan.
Lunar Calendar - Koyomi
Prior to January 1, 1873, Japan's civil calendar was based on lunar cycles rather than the west's solar (Gregorian) calendar. On that date, Japan adopted the western system of time and date keeping. Since the lunar calendar followed the cycles of the moon, its year was about five days shorter than that of the solar calendar. Just as our Gregorian calendar is off by six hours each year (February 29 every leap year makes up for it), the lunar calendar had to add a 13th month every six years or so to make it coincide with the natural cycle. This extra month in the lunar calendar is called the intercalated month.
Like the west's, each date of a lunar calendar signifies the year, the month and the day of the month. There were four different ways years have been designated in Japan, not counting the current Anno Domini method. One is the Nengo method , in which a particular era is named by the Imperial court denoting when an Emperor ascended to the throne. Generally that ascension was about a year after the prior emperor either abdicated or died. Successive years of the era are noted by a number. Premodern era names were not reign names. Generally era names signified a change of political climate, the first of which was Taika which is noted for the Taika Reforms of 645 A.D. Beginning with Emperor Meiji, the era names are the given posthumous names of the emperors, for example we are now in the year Heisei 14 marking Emperor Akihito's reign. Nengo era names were also periodically changed in the 1st and 58th year of the sexagenary cycle (60 year cycle explained below) because they were considered good luck years. Sometimes disasters could result in changing an era's name just to change the bad luck associated with it.
A third method of year designation began in the early Meji period (1868 - 1912) and was called the "Imperial Era". The year was marked as the number of years in the imperial lineage from the first emperor onward. It was designated by a number with the word kigen, which means the beginning of the dynasty, prefixed to it. This method reflects a period of time when Japan was trying to establish itself as a country rather than a group of provinces. The Imperial heritage was the strongest common thread of the Japanese people. This method was discontinued after WWII. The fourth method is for reign-years prior to the Nengo system. It differs from the Nengo in that it starts counting the full calendar year of the reign rather than a year after ascention to the throne. It is denoted with the word tenno (sovereign) after it to differentiate it from the Nengo system. The above woodblock print is a single page calendar called a ryakureki, and is dated 1893.
Months are generally noted by a number, with the exception of the first month, which is called Shogatsu (beginning month), next would be Nigatsu, literally second moon, etc. In addition to that designation, months also have informal and poetic names. Mutsuki, the first month is considered the month of affection. The second month is Kisaragi - the month of putting on more clothes. Other month's names are such things as rice planting, month of writing poetry, month of falling leaves and so on. Months that were intercalary were designated with the character jun attached to the name of the preceding month.
Time of Day
Of course, prior to the western time-keeping system, knowing the time was neither precise nor a critical concern. There were two ways premodern Japan marked time throughout the day. The day was divided into two periods: sunrise to sunset and sunset to sunrise. Each of those two intervals was divided into six divisions. So the divisions or "hours", if you will, were approximately two hours in western time. The two intervals marked by dawn and dusk were not of equal duration (only equal at the two equinoxes). The twelve divisions were denoted by the zodiac signs of Junishi. The hours went in this order with their approximate time: rat 11:00 PM-1:00 AM, ox 1:00-3:00 AM, tiger 3-5:00 AM, hare 5-7:00 AM, dragon 7- 9:00 AM, snake 9-11:00 AM, horse 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM, goat 1-3:00 PM, monkey 3-5:00 PM, rooster 5- 7:00 PM, dog 7-9:00 PM, boar 9-11:00 PM. The "hours" were also represented by numbers, i.e. the hour of the rat was the nineth hour which would decrease by each hour to the fourth hour, then start with another nineth hour in the daytime. In addition to telling the time, the twelve divisions also denoted directions which meant that some days were more auspicous to travel in a certain direction than others, as we mentioned before.