Culture and time: a history of the calendar in Japan before 1900

All societies around the globe began at one point in their history to structure time by using a calendar. The structuring of time is, however, not the sole purpose of a calendar. The historian von Brandt has observed that the systems used for time reckoning in historical societies are usually very complex and often express values and beliefs basic to these cultures in condensed form.

In this project we will investigate calendrical documents that survived on the Japanese islands in order to gain an understanding of time within Japanese culture. Two objective factors make this investigation possible. Firstly, during all historical periods in Japan the calculation, compilation and distribution of the yearly calendar remained largely under the control of the state. There is therefore only a limited variety in types and forms. Secondly, a large number of these calendrical documents survive. Beginning with the oldest fragment from 689, more than 1300 fragments and complete versions of calendars are extant for the period prior to 1600.

The starting point is, of course, the calendrical documents themselves. We will classify calendrical types based on distinctive and persistent features found among these artefacts; types displaying the same patterns will then be linked to groups of users and those major regions that were capable of producing such documents. For this stage of the assessment we will investigate the archives in which the documents are or have been kept, which often give valuable clues as to the region and which can contain information about the concrete environment in which these calendars have been used. In some cases, when personal diaries have been written into the calendars, for example, we even know precisely the name of the person who used it; in other cases, when the empty reverse of a finished calendar served as paper for a diary writer (a frequent occurrence), we know at least the types of calendars that were available in that particular household.

1845 Printed standard calendar beginning and first days jpg
1845 Printed standard calendar - beginning and first days

In the case of printed editions, the location where they have been stored is likewise sometimes informative. More importantly, perhaps, are the clues we gain from entries in the calendars themselves that explicitly mention activities of particular groups. More often than not they reveal whether we should be thinking of a female or a male user, or of somebody living in a court environment, a military household or even someone engaged in farming.

Using this method, we believe, it should be possible to connect the few calendrical types and forms that are documented to the people that have used them, and by looking at the periods in which they first appeared, we can obtain some insight into when these groups began to have access to a calendar and what consequences this had for form, content and language. In this way, an investigation into these documents will provide a new perspective on time within Japanese culture and enhance our understanding of the relation between culture and time in other pre-modern societies.

Professor Richard Bowring
University of Cambridge

Richard was awarded a Research Project Grant in November 2011; providing £146,225 over 33 months.