The Months of the Japanese Calendar

A calendar at my wife’s home, depicting the month of April, taken in 2010.

Recently, I talked about the Japanese calendar, and in particular the so called “six days” that repeat over and over. Today I wanted to step back and talk about the months of the Japanese calendar, which similarly have cultural significance.

In modern Japanese, the months of the calendar are simply numerical: ichigatsu (一月, lit. “First month, January”), sangatsu (三月, lit. “Third month, March”), jūnigatsu (十二月, “twelfth month, December”) and so on. But in the old Japanese calendar, patterned off the Chinese lunar calendar, the months had special names:

MonthJapanese Name + KanjiEnglish Meaning (source: Wikipedia)
JanuaryMutsuki (睦月)“Month of Affection”
FebruaryKisaragi (如月)“Changing Clothes”
MarchYayoi (弥生)“New Life”
AprilUzuki (卯月)“Month of Deutzia flowers”
MaySatsuki (皐月)“Rice Planting Month”
JuneMinazuki (水無月)“Month of Water”1
JulyFumizuki (文月)“Month of Erudition/Letters”
AugustHazuki 葉月“Month of Leaves”
SeptemberNagatsuki (長月)“The Long Month”
OctoberKannazuki (神無月)“Month of the Gods”1
NovemberShimotsuki (霜月)“Month of Frost”
DecemberShiwasu (師走)“Priests Running Around”
1 The “na” (無) in the name in modern Japanese means “not” or “without”, but its ancient usage in this context was more of a possessive particle (e.g. “of”) instead of “not”.

Some of these month names are still culturally familiar and appear in literature, advertisements, and so on. For example shiwasu is a month closely associated with the Japanese New year since priests (both Buddhist and Shinto) are quite busy preparing for year end/new year services. I’ve also seen yayoi also from time to time and probably others. Others are pretty obscure now and relate to the yearly farming cycle in Japan, which urban and suburban Japanese wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to.

Speaking of the yearly farming cycle, one of my favorite poems in the ancient anthology, the Hyakunin Isshu, is the very first poem, composed by Emperor Tenji:

This is another iconic poem about Autumn and also happens to be the first poem in the Hyakunin Isshu:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation by Professor Mostow
秋の田のAki no ta noIn the autumn fields
かりほの庵のKariho no io nothe hut, the temporary hut,
苫のあらみToma no aramiits thatch is rough
わが衣出はWaga koromo de waand so the sleeves of my robe
露にふりつつTsuyu ni furitsutsuare dampened night by night with dew.
For more on this poem, please see my other blog

For more on the old Japanese calendar, I also recommend a certain mobile phone app called 72 Seasons (Apple, Google) for a look at how the ancient Japanese calendar tracked the seasons and seasons within seasons.

Old calendars are a great way to peer into the lives of people who lived them, and at the same time, how much has changed since then.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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