Anno Domini and the New Era

The first day of April this year brings the announcement in Japan that that country’s […]

Richard Mammana / 4.1.19

The first day of April this year brings the announcement in Japan that that country’s calendar cycle is about to re-set to Year One. The matter is obscure outside of Japan itself and its immediate neighbors, but you can see the option for a Japanese calendar—cued to the beginning of each emperor’s reign—on iPhones and in MS Word depending on how your settings are toggled. Try as you may, you will never see years like 2019, 1945, 1979, or 1662 on Japanese currency and most official documents. The twentieth century was a hodgepodge of era names: Meiji, Taisho, Showa (1926-1989, for which everyone is nostalgic), and Heisei, when I lived there and learned how to do the mental math of converting Japanese years to Christian years and vice versa.

In 2016, the current emperor announced his desire to retire—the first person in his office to do so in almost two centuries—thus triggering a flurry of constitutional questions about the enthronement of his son, which will take place in May this year. Those of us old enough to remember Y2K will have some sense of what Japanese software developers have been doing in recent months to make sure that officialdom will not collapse; the local calendar has never gone above the year 62 before. Their work is complicated by the fact that the era name itself has been a closely-guarded secret that will become the next emperor’s posthumous name. No major problems are envisioned, but a country of 125 million and its diaspora have been waiting with desperate attention to find out what the new Year One will be called. This morning it was announced to be “Reiwa,” “a term with multiple meanings, including ‘order and peace,’ ‘auspicious harmony’ and ‘joyful harmony,’ according to scholars quoted in the local news media.”

Sound messy? It is, but perhaps no more than this:

In the year 5199 from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created Heaven and earth; from the flood, 2957; from the birth of Abraham, 2015, from Moses and the coming of the Israelites out of Egypt, 1510; from the anointing of King David, 1032; in the sixty-sixth week according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; in the year 752 from the founding of the City of Rome; in the 42nd year of the Empire of Octavian Augustus; when the whole world was at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God, and Son of the Eternal Father, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months having elapsed since his conception, is born in Bethlehem of Judea, having become Man of the Virgin Mary.

Notwithstanding scholarly or popular debates about the precision of this traditional reckoning, and the modern discomfort with using dates AD or BC—I wonder if my children will ever encounter those letters with that meaning rather than CE and BCE—most of us who speak English or live in countries that were colonized by Europeans measure our own lives and dates of every kind from the scandal of particularity in the Incarnation at Bethlehem. The Islamic year is now at 1440, and the Hebrew reckoning from Creation is now at 5779; Taiwan’s calendar was reset by Chiang Kai-Shek and has thus reached 108. The very use of our Jesus-specific years is an almost imperceptible declaration that we are oriented in a permanent way to a moment and Person in time, rather than a Kabbalistic estimation, the Flight to Medina, the establishment of the Chinese Republic, or even the enthronement in Tokyo later this year of a 126th emperor in succession to the son of the Sun Goddess.

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