Hey Say What Now? A Brief Introduction to the Japanese Calendar

"Japanese Calendar? Oh, I think I got one of those free with my sushi delivery..."

Did you know that Japan has its own numbering system for the years? As well as the Gregorian calendar (the same calendar used in the west, the one that says it's 2016 now), Japan uses another system which names years after the reign of the emperor.

(The western calendar is commonly used too - and the two systems can be used interchangeably.)

So, what's the date?

2016 is the 28th year of the current emperor, whose posthumous name will be Heisei. So 2016 is the Japanese year Heisei 28.

January 15th 2016 can be written in Japanese as:

Heisei 28nen 1gatsu 15nichi

(Japanese dates go from big to small: year → month → day)

Or even:
Cool, huh?

A year in seven days

The only confusing part comes in the year of the death of an emperor (and the ascension of their successor).

Because there are two reigning emperors in the same year, the two parts of the year get different names.

Emperor Hirohito died in the 64th year of his reign, on 7th January 1989. So the "year" Showa 64 was only seven days long. The rest of 1989 (from January 8th onwards) got the name Heisei 1.

Date-spotting in Japan

The Japanese system is commonly used in New Year’s greetings. You might see the year written in kanji too:

Heisei nijuuhachi nen
(Heisei 28, aka 2016)
You can also see it on coins in Japan.

↓ What year is this from?
Image: Wikipedia
You don't need to memorise the dates of all the emperors, though (unless you want to). There are apps and online converters that will tell you any year in the Japanese equivalent.

Elizabeth 64

If this all seems strange, remember that we do this in other languages, too. When we talk about "the Victorian era" (the years of Queen Victoria’s rule) or “the Victorians” (people who lived during that time), that's basically the same thing.

We just don’t name the individual years after the current ruler. We could if we wanted, though, I guess...?