Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Modern History (Controversy) of the Emperor's Succession
and the Japanese Method of Counting Years (Nengo) (part 2)
The Emperor of Japan, Akihito, r. 1989– (photo Reuters)
The answer to the question, "What year is it?" may seem obvious to Americans, most Europeans, and a vast number of people around the world: the answer is 2017. But though we may take for granted that time is the same all over the world, the counting of time is far from consistent. The point I am getting to is that, while in Japan we are fully aware of this Gregorian dating and use it daily, we also have another system which is just as widely employed if not well known outside the country. That is the nengo or gengo (both pronunciations are used). In terms of the nengo, the current year is Heisei 29. The name Heisei is the Era name and is based two kanji: one in a line from the Chinese shokyo (Classic of History) referring to the wise Emperor Shun, and one from the shiki (Records of the Grand Historian). The combination of the two kanji is intended to mean "peace everywhere". The name was decided and the era began in 1989 when Emperor Akihito ascended the throne. But the true significance of the nengo system is that it preserves the myth that Japan is a sacred land and her ruler is descended from Amaterasu omikami, and that Japan is unique and superior to any other nation because the Imperial line has continued from the beginning of time. This religious-mythological doctrine became a political and militaristic justification for war in the not-too-distant past. More importantly the myth is fundamentally alive and functioning behind many of Japan's doctrines in the present day. (More on this in a later post.)

Taking a step back, calendar systems basically come down to three types: those based on the earth's revolution around the sun (solar); those based on the phases of the moon (lunar); and those which are based on historical events related to a particular country. In fact, the first two also rely on the third type. The nengo can be considered of the third type. Since the Meiji Era (beginning in 1868) it has been based on the years of reign of the emperor. The current emperor, Akihito, acceded to the throne on 7 January 1989. That year became Heisei 1 or Heisei gannen meaning the first year of Heisei. The previous year (plus seven days) was the last year of his father's reign, Showa 64. In fact, the counting of time based on the reign of a sovereign was typical in many parts of the world in antiquity. In Japan before Meiji, however, a new era could be declared at any time and the numbering would begin again each time. So, for example, during the reign of Emperor Komei, the last emperor before Meiji, there were no less than seven era names within the twenty-four year span of his reign. This, and any number of other traditions, was legislated away by the new government with the stroke of a pen.
Emperor Showa (Hirohito), r. 1926–1989 (photo Japan Times)
As I stated above, the vast majority of the world is at least aware of the Gregorian numbering and this is the system most used in international dating and transactions. It is based on a solar calendar with its own system of adjustment to keep the calendar from drifting (the drift occurs because splitting the year into 24 hour units leaves a negative remainder). The primary mechanism of adjustment is to add a day to the year once in every four years (leap year) which was deemed to be the simplest method. But besides the counting of time itself is the all important question of starting points. The historical founding of a country in the modern age, is generally based on some verifiable date. However, in a world which began who-know's-when, an arbitrary starting point must be decided if you intend to have a consecutive numbering system of years since the "beginning" such as the one that has brought us to the year 2017. To put it another way, no matter the solar or lunar system of measurement, the actual dating is always based on some historical, and therefore local and arbitrary, conventions.

In the case of 2017 that choice was the supposed birthday of Jesus Christ. This starting point for the numbering of years was gradually adopted over a long period of time, beginning with its proposal by Dionysis Exiguus in 525, becoming widespread initially among Roman Catholic countries. He also proposed the term Anno Domini (the year of our Lord). He calculated the year of the birth of Jesus Christ, based on the Gospel of Luke, which states that Jesus was "about thirty years old" shortly after "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Wikipedia), calling this year AD 1. Of course, he recognized that actual time did not begin at that point. Without going into details, he was simply replacing an old convention with a new one which he felt was more pleasing to the increasing number of Catholics. A fairly arbitrary, fairly local concept, based on sketchy history. But if you are going to count, no matter what system you use, you have to start somewhere. Of course, there are a number of sources that corroborate the dates of Tiberius life and reign and that he existed is not in doubt. A number of historical sources exist as well that corroborate the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Relating the two gives some basis for dating the later though, in fact, the exact year of the birth of Jesus is unknown.

While I find the topic of calendars and dating quite interesting, I will return to my original topic of the Japanese counting of time (hopefully before exhausting my readers' attention). As I mentioned above the traditional system in Japan involves dating according to the reign of Emperors. Underlying this is the same system of lunar measurement that was used in China and much of the world prior to the adoption of a solar-based system. Therefore Japanese New Year essentially coincided with Chinese New Year which is reckoned as the beginning of spring. By the solar calendar then, New Year falls on a different day each year between 21 January and 20 February when the new moon occurs. By the way, Shinto festivals which by in large still rely on the lunar calendar, fall on different dates each year for the same reason. Again, this is just the system of measurement and has nothing to do with the starting point which is a historical-cultural choice.
Japanese Crown Prince, Naruhito (photo by Zimbio from
In the case of Japan, there has generally been no great interest in the sequential dating of years as in the Gregorian style – except during the war years when the Koki system was also employed. (Accordingly, for example, 1940 was deemed to be the year 2600.) But there has been a burning interest in the starting point, which relates to the beginning of the reigns of emperors. By this calculation, the first emperor of Japan is deemed to have been Jimmu (or Jinmu) and his reign is considered to have been from 660BC to 585BC; a total of 75 years. This is according to the Kojiki, Japan's oldest existing record of legend, myth, and history, which was finished around AD712. It also relates that Jimmu was the great-grandson of Ninigi-no-mikoto, who was himself the grandson of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, and descended to earth to rule by her command. Why he ultimately did not rule, and why it took two more generations for the first Emperor to emerge, is not clear. Apparently the world was left in such disorder by the descendants of Amaterasu's brother, Susano-o, that it took several generations to straighten it out (though almost nothing is written of how this was accomplished). At the end of this time Jinmu and his brother(s) began a march from their native Kyushu, conquering and deposing – with divine assistance – along the way, until he arrived at the land of Yamato and established the "country". According to the Kojiki, Jimmu was 126 years old when he died and Japan reckons that the current emperor is the 125th in a direct line of decent from Jimmu. Japan celebrates National Foundation Day (kenkoku or previously kigensetsu) on February 11 based on the nationalistic fantasies of the Meiji leaders and the foundation myth of Jimmu.

Of course, myth is central to the foundation of any country or people whether or not their origins predate written history, as Japan's certainly do. Stories or myths were all that existed before the practice of writing, archeology, paleontology, et al., began to present physical evidence for man's or a country's beginnings. But in regard to evidence, Japanese myths face some formidable problems. For all intents and purposes Japan had no writing system until it began to adopt the Chinese system in the 6th century. The earliest written reports about the country actually come from Chinese envoys who visited the country in the 3rd century (and apparently got a number of their facts wrong, adding to the confusion).  Archeological evidence points to the existence of a group of city states from about the third century but nothing that could be called a unified country under a single monarch or group of monarchs until the fifth century if then. In other words, the the supposed occurrence of the myth antedates the recording of it by some 1,300 years.

Yet the mythology dictates that Jimmu was the first emperor in 660BC, and that by the fifth century, Japan already had its seventeenth Emperor, Richu. Of course, mythology is not to be taken on face value and certainly must be distinguished from history. And there's the rub: since the Meiji period, the Japanese have essentially – in many respects – refused to distinguish reality from myth. All the more so since the end of WWII when a new round of denial of history began which continues until today. This is because – to those most insecure about their own self-worth – to do so has the potential to diminish the position of the Emperor, and thereby the prestige and pride that has been invested in the myth of the country's history as a whole. The definition of diminish, in this case, means modifying the insistence on the "longest continuous line of emperors of any country in the world."

It is obvious to historians and archeologists alike that there is no way that Japanese history as a country begins anywhere remotely near 660BC. Yet at the dawn of the Meiji period, the leaders who had deposed the last Tokugawa Shogun and were desperately trying to build a modern nation-state on the Western model, used the myth of a country older than any other as their unifying theme. Since then, the Japanese self image has had too much invested in these Imperial/national myths to let them go. To my knowledge the question, "should Japan change the unfounded dating of its National Foundation Day and the wholly manufactured myth of 125 consecutive Emperors," has never come up, or has been shouted down so vehemently that no amount of evidence can give an alternative idea any traction. Yet, the very fact that the foundation day of the country is based on pure fiction makes for more, not less, insecurity vis a vis other countries.

As one who has lived in Japan for a very long time, I would describe the character of the people as lacking in introspection. To put it more precisely people do not like to dwell on the past. They also do not like to point the finger of blame at anyone – both admirable traits to be sure. However the other side of the coin is that placing real responsibility and correcting errors such that they never happen again, becomes virtually impossible. This for the simple reason that the "feelings" of others must be considered as paramount (not truth; not right or wrong). Of course, the feelings being talked about are those of other Japanese and especially those intent on maintaining the status quo. Especially when it comes to correcting history relating to the Emperor and the country, it is the nationalist elements whose feelings might be hurt, potentially making them angry – often violently so. But such so-called feelings are only a cover for the powers that be who are the ones really supporting the myths. This includes the Liberal Democratic Party and the still existent aristocracy. In other words, one thing that is always behind Japanese inaction or seeming ambiguity on any thorny historical issue, is the fear of disunity and violence from within.

The aversion to "rock the boat" taints the Japanese experience of history. It impacts especially on relations with China and Korea, which have never been truly healed as a result. Even the bombing of Pearl Harbor has never truly been atoned in the national conscious, unlike the yearly remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima (a contradiction that, as an American, I feel acutely). It also results in the government editing history books to be sure that they maintain the 'correct view' of history, the one which takes great pains not to offend. The audacity to state in public, for example, that Emperor Showa shared responsibility for the war (which he obviously did) earned the Mayor of Nagasaki a bullet in the chest in 1990. The statement that got him shot was this, "Forty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and I think we have had enough chance to reflect on the nature of the war. From reading various accounts from abroad and having been a soldier myself, involved in military education, I do believe that the emperor bore responsibility for the war..." Few dare to make such a statement even today. So long as the legitimization of Japan as a country is linked to the myth of an unfaltering and infallible line of emperors, the country can never come face to face with its true history. Though it might not be apparent at first glance, this is the crux of the issue surrounding the controversy of the current emperor's resignation as well.

I would like to end this brief discussion by quoting extensively from  Klaus Antoni, professor of Japanology at the University of Tuebingen, who has researched and written extensively on Japanese religion and society. The entire text can be downloaded free from as well as other places on the net.

"Unlike the situation in post-war Germany, in Japan the year 1945 has never been seen to the same degree as a historic turning point in the sense of a new beginning unencumbered by history. The break provided by the Japanese defeat in the war indeed had lasting effects on Japanese society, for example, in the form of a modern(ized) Constitution and a political turn toward the United States, and yet continuities remain in Japan that can only be understood historically.

This is especially clear in the fact that Japan still uses its own calendar system [to count] years. The official Japanese calendar is not the Gregorian, or Western calendar, but the traditional Japanese system based on the periods of rule of the Japanese emperors (gengô, traditionally nengô). The psychological importance of this calendar in Japan can be seen, for example, in the fact that after 1945, the year of Japan’s defeat, the emperor not only retained his position, but also the era name – and thus the cycle of year numbers – remained unchanged. Only after the death of Emperor Hirohito (Shôwa-tennô) on January 7, 1989, was a new era name (Heisei) declared, marking the beginning of a new calendar cycle.

This calendar system has the effect that in Japan history is not viewed as a linear progression, but rather in an insular manner.  One cannot tell how far back in history an event lies simply from the calendar date on which it took place – for example, in the year Taihô 1. Only after placing it in a linear chronology is its true historical distance revealed, as in the case of Taihô 1, which corresponds to the year 701 A.D.

Obviously, this concept of time results in a different view of history, in which history becomes a kind of ocean with individual events scattered across it like islands. In extreme cases, an event’s historical distance from the present is of only secondary importance. In the context of religions, this fact results in a general indifference toward an objective historical chronology. Taken to the extreme, this can allow the age of myths to be directly linked to the present.

A further characteristic of Japanese culture that continues to be influential to this day is the fact that the country’s history has always been shaped and edited by large families, dynasties or clans – and a government which continues the practice until today. Whether for the imperial household, which proudly claims to have reigned without a change of blood lineage since the beginning of time (although this is viewed much more critically by any historian worthy of the title), the important families of the court nobility (and above all, the Fujiwara clan), the military nobility (especially the Minamoto and Tokugawa houses) or merchants and farmers, the crucial factor determining one’s position and reputation has always been one’s genealogical family membership – that is, one’s bloodline (though, in another twist which I won't get into, this also includes outsiders brought into the family when there are no blood descendants). Stated in the extreme, the power of genealogy can be seen as the driving force in Japanese cultural history and is especially important in the religious legitimization of ruling power."

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