The other day (lies, it was weeks ago!!!) I had the rather unusual experience of not knowing the year I was born.
Now before you get worried, no I haven’t suddenly lost my mind (that bridge was crossed a while ago I can assure you). It wasn’t that I forgot when I was born, rather it was Japan’s funky year system which meant that, on the form I was filling out, I actually didn’t know what to write for my birth year.
So, in most day-to-day life in Japan, they use the standard Gregorian calendar, e.g. the milk in my fridge expires on 2018-05-31, I’ll know whether I got tickets for a music festival in the summer on 2018年06月01日, simple. But for most official forms, it’s a little more interesting (read: difficult)
Originally based on the Chinese system of eras, (e.g. you may have heard something like “year 30 of the Ming Dynasty”), Japan bases the current year on the name* of the current emperor.
* The emperor is actually given that name posthumously, so essentially the emperor is named after the era, not the other way around.
Historically the story is a little more complicated, but I really don’t care about that…so in modern Japanese history there have been 4 eras:
Meiji (明治) era: 1868 – 1912**
Taishō (大正) era: 1912 – 1926
Shōwa (昭和) era: 1926 – 1989
and the current Heisei (平成) era: 1989 – 2019 (the current emperor has already announced plans to abdicate next year)
Say for example we want to convert 1988 to this form, you can see from above that it falls into the Shōwa era, and if 1926 is Shōwa 1, then 1988 is Shōwa 63. Simple. But annoying.
So. We finally get to point. Imagine me in a shop, trying to sell a bunch of CDs, filling out a form asking for Name, Address, etc. etc. and it comes to ‘Date of Birth’, and it looks a little like this.
明大昭平 年 月 日
So the kanji on the right are ‘year’, ‘month’ and ‘day’ respectively, and kanji on the left represent each of the 4 eras (the idea being you circle the relevant era for your birth year).
At this point I wasn’t too worried, I already knew that the current year was 平 30, but I had honestly forgotten what the other years/eras were.
Luckily the internet is a thing, and of course there’s a web-app for that.
So yeah, this is now engraved firmly in my brain alongside the other, somewhat surreal things I’ve had to learn/re-learn whilst in Japan, usually through equally embarrassing/awkward moments e.g. how to spell my name, and how to write my address (though bear in mind that the first chunk of my address goes something like: “福岡県福岡市東区” so handwriting that is always entertaining).
** For those paying attention, you’ll notice that those bounds overlap (you should be a test analyst!!). This is because the old era ends when the current emperor’s reign ends, and the new era when the new emperor starts – the following day. So, in the case of the Meiji/Taishō transition, the last day of Meiji is 29 July 1912, and the first day of Taishō is 30 July 1912.
Luckily it seems that Japan isn’t that sadistic, with the Meiji era actually extending to December 31st of 1912 for calendar purposes. As such, 1912 is either Meiji 45 or Taishō 1. And the same goes for all overlapping/transition years.