February 2000


Welcome to the year 2000! But, whilst we have been celebrating the new millennium, in large parts of the world, it has been business as usual. The turn of the year was nothing special. Well, although you may have seen the crowds in Tokyo counting down to the big moment, Japan is one of those countries that does not use A.D. as the basis for counting years - officially, at any rate. So welcome to Heisei 12, the year of the Dragon.
In South East Asia, it used to be the custom for weaker nations to calculate years according to the era of whichever stronger country controlled them at the time. Strong nations therefore were proud of their era systems which were evidence of their independence. In Japan, reckoning years by era began in the seventh century and, under the Japanese system, it was the Emperor who determined when an era would end and the next would start. This system was changed, however, in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the Shogunate was replaced by the Imperial system. At this time, Japan was opening itself to outside influences and many social and economic upheavals were taking place. It was decided that each Emperors reign would constitute an era. The year in which an Emperor ascended to the throne would be the first year of a new era which would continue until his death.
This system started with the Meiji era, which was followed by the Taisho era. The next Emperor was Emperor Hirohito (as an aside - the Emperor is simply known as Tenno (Emperor) in Japan and hardly any Japanese know what his actual name is). The naming of an era is a complex business because the Emperor's personal name is not the name chosen for his era name. Instead, a name comprising of two characters which it is hoped will epitomise the spirit of the era is selected. The era of Emperor Hirohito was called Showa (ironically, the wa character means peace). To further complicate matters, upon death an emperor is referred to by his era name - and so we have Showa Tenno or Emperor Showa.
The era of the current Emperor is called Heisei and we have just entered the twelfth year. So welcome to Heisei 12!
Although western (seireki) dates are widely employed, this system of numbering is used on all official documents in Japan so foreigners soon learn their own date of birth in years of the Emperor. Many elderly Japanese could not tell you their date of birth in any other way (although everyone knows which year of the Chinese zodiac calendar they were born in - but that's another story!)