The Japanese Calendar

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When considering the best time to visit Japan, those who want to experience traditional expressions of Japanese culture should take into account the most important festivities which take place during the year. But first, it’s important to understand how the Japanese calendar works. Most people know about the zodiac animals which each year in Japan is named after (rat, sheep, dragon, etc.), but are unaware that the Japanese calendar has its own system for months, as well as a six-day cycle of designated lucky and unlucky days.

Before planning when on the Japanese calendar to visit the country, travelers should first check if they require a visa to enter Japan. Citizens of a number of eligible countries will soon be able to apply for a Japanese tourist eVisa online, which is due to be implemented by April 2020 and will eliminate the need to apply for a visa from a Japanese embassy or consulate.

What Calendar Does Japan Use?

The first Japanese calendar is said to have been drawn up in 604 AD, influenced by the systems in use in both China and Korea at the time. Over the next few centuries, the Japanese then developed their own unique calendar using several of the features of the Chinese lunar calender. Months on the Japanese calendar started with the new moon, with the midpoint of the month marked by the full moon. It was sometimes necessary to add an extra month as each year only had 354 days.

The years were numbered on the Japanese calendar using the nengō system, which designated eras named after the reigning Emperor. Since the Meiji period (1868-1912), each reign has been one era. The nengō system of numbering years still remains in use in Japan, especially on government documents.

Although the nengō system remains in use on domestic and regional paperwork, Japan officially switched to the Gregorian Calendar on January 1st, 1873, at the beginning of the Meiji period. However, many aspects of the traditional Japanese system remain in use, and can still be seen on many printed calendars today.

Features of the Japanese Calendar

The days on most Japanese printed calendars will include Satsuki (the traditional Japanese month name), Shinreki (the day and month of the Gregorian calendar), Kyūreki (the day and month of the traditional calendar), and Rokuyo (which marks the day as either lucky or unlucky).

The months of the traditional Japanese calendar each start later than its equivalent in the Gregorian calendar, with the first month beginning in late January or early February. The names of the traditional Japanese months, as well as their believed original meaning, are as follows:

  • Mutsuki – When family members gather for New Year
  • Kisaragi – The month of covering up against the cold
  • Yayoi – The month of new plant growth
  • Uzuki – The month when the deutzia flowers bloom
  • Satsuki – Rice planting season
  • Minazuki – The month for flooding rice fields
  • Fumizuki – When rice ripens
  • Hazuki – When the leaves fall
  • Nagatsuki – The month when the night gets longer
  • Kannazuki – The month of gods
  • Shimotsuki – The month of frost
  • Shiwasu – The month in which to make preparations for the New Year.

Rokuyo is a repeated sequence of six days which indicates whether the day is favorable or not, especially in the case of weddings and funerals, and is divided into the following:

  • Senshō – Considered to be a day with a favorable morning but a less promising afternoon.
  • Tomobiki – A day said to have favorable outcomes for happy events but less so for somber occasions such as funerals.
  • Senpu/Sakimake – A day on which it is advisable to act calmly, and which is said to have an afternoon favoring positive outcomes.
  • Butsumetsu – Generally considered unlucky but acceptable for funerals and Buddhist rites.
  • Taian – Considered a lucky day, especially for weddings.
  • Shakkō/Shaku – Considered an unlucky day for celebrations such as weddings. Midday is the only time considered fortuitous during this day.

Important Dates on the 2020 Japanese Calendar

The Japanese calendar contains 5 seasonal festivals held on days deemed to be favorable according to Rokuyo, known as the five sekku. The five sekku in 2020 are as follows:

  • Jinjitsu no sekku (January 7th) – Traditionally, a day associated with prayers for a good harvest and the eating of nanakusa-gayu, a rice porridge seasoned with herbs.
  • Momo no sekku (March 3rd) – On which Hinamatsuri, a festival celebrating daughters, is held.
  • Tango no sekku (May 5th) – Traditionally known as Boy’s Day, the holiday is celebrated in modern Japan as Children’s Day.
  • Tanabata (July 7th) – Star Festival, which is celebrated with the tradition of writing hopes and wishes on strips of colored paper and displaying them in public places.
  • Chōyō no sekku (September 9th) – A day on which temples are decorated with colorful chrysanthemums, a flower traditionally associated with imperial Japan.

Other important Japanese calendar dates in 2020 include:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1st)
  • The Emperor’s Birthday (February 23rd)
  • Golden week in Japan (April 29th to May 5th)
  • Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (July 24th to August 9th)
  • Autumnal Equinox Day (September 22nd)
  • Labor Thanksgiving Day (November 23rd)