About the Traditional Calendar 旧暦:

The Chinese Connection

The history of the Japanese calendar stretches very far back into Japanese history- so far back, indeed, that we find ourselves in ancient China. As was true of many facets of the ancient Chinese civilization--from its writing system to ceramics and medicine-- the Chinese calendar was remarkably advanced and far superior to anything held by its neighbors of the time. In The Wei Chronicle, a narrative history of the Wei Dynasty (220-265CE), we find the Japanese calendar of the third century contemptuously described as being “ignorant of astronomy; based solely on the planting of crops in Spring and the harvest in Autumn.” This points to the fact that, like most ancient calendars, the Japanese calendar, at least up to the third century, was constructed primarily around local agricultural cycles; that is, on the planting and harvesting of rice.        

The  Chinese calendar was much more advanced and something that countries that entered into vassal relationships with China were entitled to utilize.

In David Kang’s provocative book, East Asia Before the West, the author points out that in 500 years of the Chinese Imperial Tributary System, there was only one war. Also that borders between China and the Tributary counties of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were respected during that period. Despite the fact that the countries were in an unequal relationship, they maintained balance and harmony. In fact, other scholars have pointed out that China, in order to maintain its regional hegemony, sometimes acted in ways that were not in always its immediate self-interest. For example, technology transfers and trade relations that were beneficial to the weaker states maintained in order for the status quo to be maintained.   

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, while the 72 micro-seasons were altered over time to reflect more local Japanese sensibilities, the twenty-four solar points, or 24 sekki 二十四節気, that made up the traditional Chinese calendar were never changed. This has always appealed to me, knowing the way it is shared throughout East Asia.

So while Japan does not celebrate the Chinese custom of Qingming, it is still reflected in the calendar.


For more see my essay in the New Rambler: Hierarchy in a Drowning World

Review of Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, by Daniel Bell and Wang Pei

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Leanne Ogasawara lived in Japan and worked as a Japanese translator for twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation in art and philosophy, infrastructure, and documentary film.