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To convert a date from the Japanese era to a Western date, add the number in the 'Add' column to the Japanese year. So, for example, Shōwa 25 is 1950.
Here is a table of recent eras. For a complete list, see Complete list of Japanese eras
Japan started using the Gregorian calendar in Meiji 6, replacing a lunisolar calendar. So the day before January 1 of Meiji 6 (1873) was not December 31, but December 2, of Meiji 5 (1872).
The Japanese traditional calendar, known as the known as
Ancient Japan imported the Chinese lunar calendar, probably before the 7th century. In the older epoch, for example in the 3th century, Japan was said to count years by observing the seasons.
In 864, Japan adopted one of the Chinese calendars in which a year was defined as 365.2446 days. This calendar was used until 1699. Meanwhile in China, a more accurate calendar was invented, where a year was defined as 365.2425 days, just the same as the Gregorian calendar. Because of the error in the former calendar the season drifted slightly, so in 1700 Japan invented her own calendar based on her own astronomic observations. The principle, however, was the luni-solar one,the same as the Chinese one.
In 1868, the Meiji Emperor took back the ruling power from the Tokugawa Shogun (the Meiji Restoration). Many regimes were reformed learning Western fashions. At the end of 1873, the government announced the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. It is said the true reason was from financial needs. The year was the first one where an extra month was inserted after the Meiji Restoration. Since the government paid salaries on a monthly basis to public servants (in the Tokugawa period the salary was paid on a yearly basis), the thirteenth salary should have been paid this year, but the government had no income for the payment. So, it adopted the solar calendar to terminate the year at the twelfth month.
Since that period, the Japanese official calendar has been the Gregorian, but some people still use the old calendar even now. It is not that the old calendar is rational. Since agriculture depends on the sun's movement, the solar calendar should be better than the luni-solar one. However, in the old calendar New Year and Summer Festival are at the non-busy seasons, but not in the Gregorian one. Many festivals, such as Peach, Iris, Star and Chrysanthemum, shift to improper seasons in the Gregorian calendar. For these reasons, the old calendar has not been thrown away.
At the Meiji Revolution, the government determined that the nengō should be renewed on the day of the emperor's enthronement. Since then, only four nengō have existed; Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa and Heisei, which correspond to the emperors with these names. The current emperor is never called the Heisei Emperor, but will be called so after his death. Meiji 1, Taisho 1, Showa 1 and Heisei 1 correspond to 1868, 1912, 1926 and 1989, respectively. The year 1989 is Showa 64 before the enthronement (January 7) and Heisei 1 after it.
There is another name of the era, the so-called "Imperial Calendar" or
|Twelve animals of Chinese New Year|
|Illustration credit: Márcia Novais|
|Used under a Creative Commons licence.|
Each year is named as the combination of two characters, each of which is taken from one of two sets. So, there are 60 combinations used to represent a year. See also What is the Jikkan jūnishi?
The usage of "eto" has long history. In ancient historical records, only eto was used to represent a year, so historians may have to guess which year a record refers to.
Eto is no longer used in its original form in contemporary Japan. Only the animal part is used. For example, in the "dog" year, many New Year's greeting cards have pictures or drawings of dogs. Some people take the animals of their birth year into account in fortune telling.
Edited from posts by Funatsu Kunihiro and NAKANO Yasuaki. Thanks to Bart Mathias and muchan for filling in some of the names above.
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