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The Japanese Era Calendar Scheme

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/11 Traditional Culture ,

If you’ve been staying in Japan for some time now, then you’ve probably come across some government forms or some sort of application form that need filling up. You’ll notice that in some forms wherein you need to fill up a date, the format is quite different. That’s because some require you to use the Japanese era calendar scheme (wareki).

The Wareki (Japanese calendar) scheme

Here’s a brief description of the Japanese era calendar scheme from Wikipedia:

The Japanese era name (年号 nengō?, “year name”, transliterated Chinese: niánhào), also known as gengō (元号?), is the first of the two elements that identify years in the Japanese era calendar scheme. The second element, a number, indicates the number of years since the era began. For example, the current era, “Heisei“, began in 1989 AD/CE, so the current year in this scheme is “Heisei 26″.

Here an example of a form using the Japanese era format. The date is in the upper right corner of the form.

Visa Application Form: Itinerary of Stay

Visa Application Form: Itinerary of Stay

What really differs in format is only the year part. The months and days are expressed the same way as the Gregorian calendar. As an example, the year 2000 using the Japanese format is Heisei 12.

It’s easy to convert from gregorian calendar year format to the Japanese era calendar format. All you have to do is to find the first year of the era for the year you want to convert. (You could find the list of era names here) Then, subtract one and then subtract from the year to convert. Sounds confusing, but it’s really simple.

Example

Year to convert: 2000

Japanese Era for year 2000: Heisei

The first year for the era Heisei: 1989

So from the example above, 1989 – 1 = 1988. Then 2000 – 1988 = 12. So, the Japanese era format would be Heisei 12.

To convert from Japanese calendar scheme to Gregorian, all you have to do is add the year to the start of the period, then deduct 1. See example below.

Japanese Year to convert: Heisei12

The first year for the era Heisei: 1989

So, the computation would be 1989 + 12 = 2001. Then subtract one from 2001, which equals 2000.

A few more comments

The Japanese mostly adapt or use the Gregorian calendar scheme, so foreigners won’t really find it that hard to adjust when it comes to dealing with dates. The Japanese calender era scheme is mostly only used in formal documents, such as visa application forms, government related application forms, or forms found in the hospital.

For people in the IT industry who have dealt with Japanese dates, the Japanese calendar era scheme makes it especially hard for maintenance of IT systems. Since the era scheme is mostly based on the period of the ruling emperor, once a new emperor emerges, the systems need to be updated to adapt to the new period. This does not only apply to IT systems, but also to paper based forms, since the forms will need to be reprinted with the latest period information.

Personally, one advantage of the Japanese calendar era scheme, culturally, is it gives you an idea on who the ruling emperor is at a certain period in time. When you read history books in Japan, the years are usually stated using the era calendar scheme, so this gives you an idea, as to the period a certain event could have happened.

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