Where It's Not 2023

How we tell time shows what we value

I came across a discussion thread online today discussing why it's not 2023 in Japan, at least technically. Long story short, Japan bases its calendar years on the date of ascension of the current emperor. To be clear, they still mainly use the Gregorian calendar we all use in most of their daily business, but the Japanese calendar plays a role in determining holidays, dates of cultural significance, et cetera. And as it turns out, there are quite a few countries and cultures that have similar practices. Almost every country in the world uses the Gregorian calendar for most of their planning, but quite a few have their own unique cultural calendars that exist in parallel.

This has gotten me thinking a lot about what we can uncover about a society by looking at its "year zero" dates. The Gregorian calendar we use today, for example, has the "year zero" or the epoch date set as the estimated year of the birth of Christ as calculated by a Roman monk named Dionysius Exiguus. This tells us a few things about our society, namely that many of our more formal habits like timekeeping etc. likely stem from some mix of Christian and Roman thought and practice.

Royal and Nationalist Roots

Some countries base their calendar epochs on the birth or reign of various national figureheads, or on some significant event that was significant in the creation of a cultural or national identity. If a country's borders focus on grouping a population in a shared place, the key focus among these calendars is on people or events that can group the same population into a shared time.

  • In Japan, it is year 5 of the Reiwa era, which began on the day that emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne

  • In North Korea, it is Juche year 112, marking the number of years since the birth of founder/dictator Kim Il-Sung

  • In India, it is year 1944, marking the number of years since the previously believed date that Kanishka I ascended to the throne of the Kushan empire before expanding its reach to cover almost the entire Indian subcontinent

  • In Nepal, it is year 1143, with the epoch year beginning on the mythological date that the debts of the Nepali people were paid off by a merchant named Sankhadhar Sakhwa who had discovered sand that had turned to gold

  • In Taiwan, it is year 112, with the calendar beginning on the first year of the existence of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen

  • In Bangladesh, it is year 1429. The specific reason is unclear, but it seems to be based on the yea that an independent Bengal state was established

Religious Roots

While most alternative calendars appear to be regnal or nationalist in nature, some alternative calendars focus on religious events much like the Gregorian calendar does with the birth of Christ. And if the focus of the previous alternative calendars has appeared to be the grouping of a population in a shared time, it would make sense to state that the following calendars (and the Gregorian) focus on grouping a population into a shared metaphysical reality.

  • In Iran, it is year 1401, based on the number of solar years since Muhammad and his followers were believed to have journeyed from Mecca to Medina

  • In most of the rest of the Muslim world, it is year 1444, based on the number of lunar years since the same events occurred

  • In Ethiopia and Eritrea, it is year 2015, marking the number of years since the birth of Christ as calculated by the Egyptian monk Annianus of Alexandria

  • In Thailand, it is year 2566, based on the number of years that have passed since the suspected date of Gautama Buddha

  • In Israel, it is year 5783, counting the estimated number of years since the suspected creation of the Earth in some Jewish denominations

Honorable Mentions

So far, I've only mentioned calendars that are still in use today. However, there are plenty of other systems throughout history that give us some interesting examples to consider.

  • The French Republican Calendar existed for twelve years during the French Revolution, starting on the day of the storming of the Bastille

  • Benito Mussolini created the Fascist Era while he ruled Italy, which began on the day he marched on Rome in 1922

  • Ab urbe condita was a calendar system used in Rome before the Julian calendar was created, and marked the number of years since its founding in 753 BC

What Does This All Tell Us?

It's important to remember that most if not all calendars were either created by the ruling powers or by the religious leaders of the time, and that said rulers/religious leaders were often focused on creating administrative frameworks to help them defend, maintain, and expand their spheres of power.

With that being said, if our global timekeeping practices are any clue, it seems that calendars exist to organize populations on three axes: personal, national, and religious. Be it personal fealty to an emperor, nationalist patriotism, or observance of faith, the way in which societies measure time says a lot about what they believe to be the foundation of their common existence. It shows front and center what the most important event is for a given population, which can reveal to us what people or institutions are most sacred among a population.

Author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Righteous Mind:

"Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice."

By considering these calendars, we can consider the roots of the sacred beliefs and practices that bind people together. And we can investigate the foundations of the arbitrary practices in which populations partake that render them insiders and non-practitioners outsiders. And when in-group and out-group distinctions reign supreme, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand, empathize with, or be accepting to the out-group. The sacredness of the ritual becomes blinding.

After all, it feels weird for it to not be 2023 in some places, right? It's easy to see people who don't use our calendar as odd, strange, or other. Outsiders to our society, seemingly centuries away if only on a sheet of paper.

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