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Unlocking Japan’s Time Warp: Turning the Clock

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I have two simple questions for you. Do you know what year it is in Japan? And the other one, even “easier”: do you know what happened in Japan on December 3, 1872? I’ll give you 5 seconds to think about it, 4…..3…..2…..1, time’s up! What’s your answer?

Most of you probably think you know the answer to the first question… or at least you think you do. And the second question? That one might have been tougher, even if you tried looking it up online. Want to know the answers? Don’t hesitate to read this article—it’ll make you smarter (well, more knowledgeable), and you can quiz your “smart” friends with these questions at your next meal or dinner. It’ll make you seem even smarter😁

What Year Is It in Japan?

So, what year is it in Japan? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Officially, according to the Gregorian calendar, it’s 2024. However, if you consult certain official documents or ask someone more traditionally inclined, they might tell you it’s the year 6 of Reiwa (令和). And, if you dive into ancient traditions, you could even say it’s the year 2683, marking the time since the legendary Emperor Jinmu ascended the throne.

  • The Ancient Lunisolar Calendar: A Gift from China

Japan’s relationship with time began with the lunisolar calendar, a system imported from China over two millennia ago. This calendar was based on the cycles of the moon, with each month starting with a new moon and lasting about 29 or 30 days. To keep in sync with the solar year, an extra month was added approximately every three years, similar to the leap year in the Gregorian calendar.

This method, while integral to agricultural and social activities, often required adjustments. Festivals, planting, and harvest seasons were all guided by this lunar rhythm, ensuring that the activities aligned with the natural world. The lunisolar calendar created a strong connection between the Japanese people and the celestial bodies.

  • The Mythical Beginning: Emperor Jinmu

According to legend, Emperor Jinmu, the first Emperor of Japan, ascended to the throne on February 11, 660 B.C. This date, though mythical, is still celebrated annually as National Foundation Day on February 11th. The story of Emperor Jinmu is not just a legend but a foundational myth that has shaped Japanese identity for centuries.

Emperor Jinmu’s accession marks the beginning of the Japanese Imperial line, which is considered the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy. Calculating the years from this mythical beginning, we find ourselves in the year 2683. This long span of time is a testament to the enduring legacy and cultural importance of the Imperial family in Japan.

  • The Calendar of Eras: A Unique Japanese System

As time progressed, Japan developed the system of eras, where each imperial reign was marked by a specific era name. This system began in 645 AD with the Taika era and has continued uninterrupted to the present day. Each new emperor’s reign heralds the beginning of a new era, reflecting the hopes and aspirations for the period.

The current era, Reiwa, began in May 2019 with the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito. The name Reiwa, which can be translated as “beautiful harmony,” was chosen to symbolize peace and cultural prosperity. Thus, we are now in Reiwa 6.

The era system serves not only as a means of marking time but also as a cultural and historical record. Each era name encapsulates the spirit and ideals of the time, providing insight into the societal values and aspirations of each period. Importantly, the era calendar is the most commonly used system in official documents in Japan today, underscoring its continued significance.

  • The Rich Legacy of Japanese Calendars

From the ancient lunisolar calendars that guided agricultural cycles to the sophisticated era system that marks imperial reigns, Japan’s approach to measuring time is deeply intertwined with its culture and history. Each method of timekeeping reflects the values, beliefs, and priorities of different periods in Japanese history.

The lunisolar calendar, with its ties to nature, emphasized the importance of harmony with the natural world. The era system, on the other hand, highlights the significance of imperial authority and continuity in Japanese society. Both systems, in their own ways, have contributed to the unique temporal landscape of Japan.

What Happened on December 3, 1872?

Now, let’s address that second question: what happened in Japan on December 3, 1872? The answer is…nothing! December 3, 1872, simply doesn’t exist in Japanese history according to the Gregorian calendar. In fact, the days from December 3 to December 31, 1872, do not exist in Japan.

  • The Transition to the Gregorian Calendar

Here’s what happened: Japan decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar to align itself with Western nations and modernize its systems. The Japanese calendar, deeply rooted in tradition, was based on a combination of lunar and solar cycles. This lunisolar calendar dictated the timing of festivals, agricultural activities, and social events. However, it also introduced complexities due to its reliance on the lunar cycle, resulting in variations in the start of the new year.

In the year 5 of Meiji, the Japanese government made the decision to transition to the Gregorian calendar. Up until then, Japan had been using the traditional lunisolar calendar, which was several months behind the Gregorian calendar used by many Western nations. The last day of the old lunisolar calendar was December 2, 1872, which was Meiji 5 year. The very next day, instead of being December 3, it was January 1, 1873, according to the Gregorian calendar.

This sudden shift in timekeeping had significant implications for the Japanese people. Traditionally, the Japanese New Year, known as “Shogatsu,” fell somewhere between late January and early February, based on the lunisolar calendar. Therefore, they were expecting the year to end in almost two months’ time. However, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the new year was abruptly brought forward to January 1, 1873.

As a result, the year 5 of Meiji became an unusually short year, effectively cutting off almost two months. This adjustment was met with confusion and logistical challenges, as it meant reorganizing schedules, adjusting contracts, and recalibrating social customs. However, it was seen as a necessary step towards modernization and synchronization with the global community.

The transition to the Gregorian calendar was part of Japan’s broader efforts during the Meiji Restoration to modernize and industrialize rapidly. By adopting Western systems of timekeeping and measurement, Japan aimed to facilitate international relations, trade, and technological advancements. Despite the initial challenges, this transition marked a pivotal moment in Japan’s history, symbolizing its willingness to embrace change and adapt to a rapidly evolving world.


Whether it’s 2024, Reiwa 6, or 2683, understanding the layers of time in Japan provides a deeper insight into the country’s rich heritage. The intricate tapestry of calendars reflects Japan’s ability to adapt and evolve while honoring its traditions. As Japan continues its journey through time, its calendar will remain a fascinating window into its past, present, and future.