A female relative called from Europe to wish me a Happy New Year.
F: “What do you do out there for New Year’s Eve?”
S: “Buckwheat noodles.”
F: “Oh. And then? Any party after count down?”
S: “Not really. Actually no count down at all.”
F: “How can you not do count down!”
S: “Count downs come from the European custom of having churches in every town with huge bells to mark the time. No churches here, so no bells. They didn’t even have clocks until recently.”
F: “That’s sad.”
S: “Actually tomorrow is the big day here. Fancy food, visit to the temple to pray for good fortune, visiting relatives, etc. What will you do tomorrow.”
F: “Oh we’ll all be horribly hangover unable to move.”
S: “That’s sad.”
One of the hardest intellectual challenges of living abroad is learning to do cultural relativism right. Probably cultural relativism started with actually knowledgeable explorers paying attention and being reasonable about what they learned: that different peoples do things in different ways, and sometimes there’s no particularly superior way. Which should be obvious. But bizarrely the idea was appropriated by the sanctimonious left as a way to stick it to their domestic rivals. Of course they deprived it of all nuance. But it shows how their brains are wired that talking about different cultures, when the context is not signaling ones enlightened tolerance in contrast to the nasty nativists, leftist just default to their real zealot selves, where everybody who is not doing the same thing they are is sad, oppressed or just nasty.
Slightly more knowledgeable people ask better questions: “do you celebrate New Years there? Isn’t it like in China?”.
Well actually it should be. Japan used to follow the Chinese calendar, which is lunar and usually starts around our early February. They also followed most of the Chinese festivals, which are set to coincide with usual agricultural events, which suited a nation of almost exclusive rice peasants. I knew that the Meiji government had abolished the Chinese calendar and adopted the Western quite early on, and the history is normally told as just one more of the Westernizing measures of the Meiji, and never gave it further thought. But on being asked again, I started thinking about it. And changing a calendar used for millennia must have been quite something. People organized their year around that calendar and its seasonal events, which were more or less fixed every year. All that changed with the new calendar. And amusingly enough, the government didn’t change the dates of the festivals to their seasonal equivalent. The Gregorian calendar runs approximately one month earlier than the Chinese equivalent, so all the festivals were suddenly done one month earlier. Now even China, and even Taiwan today use the Gregorian calendar, as they have to do business with Western countries. But they keep count of the old calendar and every year the government sets holidays to match the old calendar festivals, to avoid breaking the tradition.
Japan is often regarded as a staunchly conservative country which protects its traditions very well. One thinks the basis of time-keeping of their people would be worthy of protection too. But hey it was also important to catch up with the Western industrial powers. Maybe the Japanese elite found it necessary to go all the way, and little by little convinced their people of the need to reform, for the glory of the nation. Right?
Wrong. The Calendar was changed in January 1st 1873. But the law was only announced in December 9th 1872. And that’s in a preindustrial society without radio or modern means of communication. The people had less than a month to adapt to a wholly new calendar system. Traditionally the calendar guild used to distribute the calendars for the next year in October 1st, which means that when the new law passed, the old-style calendars for 1873 had already been made and distributed, and their production schedule had no way of producing new-style calendars on time. All their stocks were all of a sudden worth nothing. Bankruptcies and misery ensued.
OK so a whole guild was destroyed by the government, but it was for good reason, right? For the common good? Not a chance. Thankfully one of the oligarchs of the time, Okuma Shigenobu was kind enough to explain the process in his later memoirs. Usually civil servants in Japan had their salary paid annually. But in 1872 the Meiji government changed it to monthly payment. However the Chinese calendar is lunar, with 12 months. So it only has 354 days, less than a full circle around the sun. What they do is add a whole intercalary month so the calendar doesn’t drift too much from the seasons. As it happens 1873 in the old calendar had an intercalary month, so 13 months in total. That means 13 salaries for the Japanese civil service. And that’s something that the recently established Meiji government couldn’t afford. By adopting whitey’s calendar, the next year would only have 12 months. And the new calendar was to start in January 1st 1873, which coincided with December 2 of the old calendar. By changing the calendar, the month of December would disappear, so that’s another month worth of salaries they could save! 2 months in one strike, imagine that. The government loved the idea, published the law in a hurry, probably promoted the guy who came up with it. And fucked everyone else.
One piece of evidence showing that Japan didn’t really care about Westernization is that they never adopted the way Christian era to count years. Japan traditionally uses the Chinese way of counting years, the 年号, or regnal era. Say what you say about Christianity, but counting the years after his birth make an awesome Schelling point which facilitates tracking events in time. When were you born? 1980? So that’s 34 years ago. Well the ancients didn’t believe that some guy in Judaea was the son of the only one God. So how did they count their years? Well in the absence of Jesus Christ, you have to use the next awesome guy. In China, the Kings. So it was “in the 5th year of King something of Zhou…”, which isn’t as easy but it’s still manageable. Then came the unified Empire, and the martial emperor of the Han Dynasty had this great idea of naming the years himself. So every 5 years or so he would decree that from day on we are in the era of Great Start, or Awesome Light, or whatever cheesy title worthy of a teenage diary he could come up with. And all official documents were to be dated using the regnal era. It’s hard enough to remember all the rulers in the thousands of years of Chinese history. Imagine every ruler changing the era name every time he had a mood change. It’s hard to be a Chinese historian. No wonder their histories are so good.
With the Ming Dynasty the custom of randomly changing era name was abolished, and each emperor set only one era during his whole reign, and emperors are named after their era. One of the few smart policies the Ming ever made. After Imperial rule was ostensibly restored in Meiji Japan, they adopted the same rule. So Mutsuhito set the Meiji 明治 era 1868–1912, for which he is named, his son ruled over the Taisho 大正 era 1912–1926, and his grandson Hirohito ruled over the Showa 昭和 era 1926–1989. 2014 is year 26 of the Heisei 平成 era, and all official documents in Japan must be dated thus. Official forms in Japan’s date format isn’t __/__/20__. It’s H__/__/__. H for Heisei.
What’s interesting is that not only documents are dated according to government decrees. People actually have a concept of “era” and attribute things to them. Like, to refer to something old-fashioned in Japan you say “That’s so Showa”. And when complaining about the kids of today, people say “Kids born in Heisei just don’t have any respect”. I’ve heard people born in the last year of Showa (1988) talk about kids born in Heisei (1989-) like there was an impenetrable wall of difference between them. Now I can understand that in China, in the old days of the Empire, the regnal era made some sense. Say you get a really bad emperor who orders the mobilization of all food reserves and one son of every household to start a war. The war is lost and the economy devastated. Now in that situation talking about “Year 10 of the Emperor X” is quite meaningful because all years of that emperor had the common theme of general misery. A new emperor was likely to change the whole thing and usher in a new era of relatively less misery.
But as I wrote before, Japanese Emperors don’t rule, and using era names is just traditionalist signalling, and reluctance to abandon a good old Schelling point. But an era name encompassing all years from 1926-1989 can’t possibly be a useful concept. For starters Showa includes WW2, which was terrible for Japan. And even ignoring the war, as the Japanese are apt to do, Japan in 1945 has little in common with 1989. But they are all referred to as the good old Showa days. Says a lot about just how obedient the Japanese are to political power.
There’s a lot of fun in looking at the intersection of HBD, Tip O’Neill and calendars. The Islamic calendar is similar to the Chinese, with 12 lunar months, totaling 354 days. But they don’t have intercalary months, so the calendar just goes on drifting away from the seasons, 10 days every year. Which means that in every generation New Year falls in every season of the year. And yet the Egyptians had figured out a working solar calendar thousands of years ago. The Persian calendar is also quite accurate. Shows you the marvels of Islamic innovation.
Also I found amusing that India doesn’t have a common New Year. It’s not that they have different festivals, they can’t even agree on the date. Each region has its own calendar with its own starting date. And nobody gives a shit about it.
I always found it strange that the Western New Year fell in January 1st. Which is 10 days after the Winter solstice, i.e. cold as fuck. The body wants to hibernate, not to party. The Persian New Year starts in March 21, the beginning of Spring, which makes much sense. Even Chinese New Year is understandable, as it usually falls around the peak of Winter. It can’t get any colder, i.e. it’s only getting warmer afterwards. That’s a cause of celebration. But January 1st?
That comes from the old Roman calendar, which has also a quite amusing history. It seems that in the old days the calendar had only 10 months, staring in the spring equinox, and running for 304 days. Means that the 60 days before spring weren’t even counted. It’s just cold misery, so why even keep count? Stay home and drink wine, there’s nothing to do anyway.
Still not late after the founding of the city, the months of January and February were added after December. The calendar still started in March, as can be seen by the fact that September comes from Septem (7), and so on until December, from Decem (10). Now Romans seem to have counted their years by the consuls of the year. So to refer to years past you said “in the year of consul X and Y”, in a similar fashion to Chinese regnal years, except Consul’s only lasted one year. Must have been really hard to be a Roman historian. Which again explains why they were so good. That is until they came up with Ab Urbe Condita timing. Then it all went to hell.
Anyway it seems it was customary for consuls to assume their consulate with the New Year in March. Then in 153 BC they changed it to January. Now why would they do that? March makes a lot of sense, January doesn’t. Hell they didn’t even count January back in the old days. Why would they make their consuls assume office in the winter cold? To remind them of their mortality? Nothing of the sort. As always the reasoning behind the change was quite spurious. In 154 BC the Celtiberians in Spain started a revolt against Roman rule. Thing is Romans had the habit of waiting to start a war until the new consul had assumed office. Quintus Fulvius Nobilior had already been elected and was preparing the war, but he could only start it in March 153. The rebellion was looking bad, and by March it might have already been unstoppable. So what did the Romans do? Did they discard their old Schelling Point about having waiting for the new consul to start a war, forget partisanship and just send a competent general? Of course not. They changed the ancient start of the year to January 1st, so Mr. Nobilior could lead an army earlier and squash the uppity Celtiberians. All the calendars in Rome were redone to show January on top, December, i.e. Month 10 became Month 12, and that was it. New Year stayed in January until the end of Rome.
Medieval Europe went its own way, and every kingdom set its own date for New Year. Byzantium had September from a tradition that the world was created in September 1 5509 BC. Some Western countries had March 25 (the beginning of Spring, and conveniently, the Annunciation). Other chose Christmas, which makes sense when you’re actually counting the years after Christ’s birth. But most people still used the old reliable Roman calendars, and they said January 1st was New Year’s, so a party was still had. The Church kept trying to push Christian holidays as New Year until Pope Gregory XIII in his holy wisdom set up the new Gregorian calendar, starting in January 1st.
And so we are here, celebrating a new circle around the sun in this dark, cold date, because a Roman consul couldn’t wait 2 months to send an army to kill Celtiberians. O tempora, O Schelling points.
Nevertheless, Happy New Year everyone. 2013 was a very important year for me personally, and it’s also been a great year for this blog, if not as prolific as 2012 was. Still 2013 saw an explosion of interest in neoreaction, and I’m happy to have made my contribution to it. As every year passes, we get closer to 2037 (or 2025), our work becomes more important. We gotta come up with something quickly guys. So keep up the good work.