Watchmaking in Japan


The secret calendars of Japanese prints

HISTORY

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July 2019


The secret calendars of Japanese prints

To circumvent the state monopoly on calendars, ingenious Japanese craftsmen designed prints that revealed – to initiates only – the alternation of short and long months. It was a system that lasted until the 19th century.

T

he Japanese prints known as “Ukiyo-e”, which appeared at the beginning of the 17th century in the city of Edo (the future Tokyo), find their origin in the printing of popular and religious images on paper using engraved wooden plates. The main advantage of this process was that it allowed the serial reproduction of images and writings.

Ukiyo-e quickly became an artistic and commercial movement, combining picturesque narrative painting and prints that were generally accessible to broad sections of the population. The figurative themes coincided with the interests of the bourgeoisie at the time: geishas and pretty women, scenes from pleasure houses, theatre actors, wrestlers, fantastic scenes and famous views. Calendars and greetings cards also reproduced these subjects.

The figurative themes coincided with the interests of the bourgeoisie at the time: geishas and pretty women, scenes from pleasure houses, theatre actors, wrestlers, fantastic scenes and famous views.

A new print for each month of the year

With the advent of the Meiwa era in 1764, “bushi” (warriors) and citizens of Edo became accustomed to hanging a new polychromatic “Nishiki-e” in their interior every month, which soon became sought after by collectors from all walks of life.

The poets Kyogawa and Sakey, the instigators of these “calendar prints”, encouraged famous painters, engravers and renowned printers to collaborate in creating works of refined luxury and increasingly sophisticated technology.

The second half of the 18th century saw the appearance of “E-goyomi” or “calendar images”. In the form of prints traditionally offered as a New Year’s gift, they were originally designed to provide, in artistic form, the list of the long months of the complex Japanese lunar calendar.

This calendar, which originated in China, was adopted in the Land of the Rising Sun from 692 and remained in force until 1872. The year comprised alternating long months (30 days) and short months (29 days). It required the introduction, every three years or so, of a mobile “leap month” in order to coincide with the New Year and the appropriate season.

The complex Japanese lunar calendar, which originated in China, was adopted in the Land of the Rising Sun from 692 and remained in force until 1872.

Turtles or pines to designate the months

Eventually, the arbitrary succession of long and short months stopped being announced in advance, and the calendar became a state monopoly. In order to circumvent this monopoly, some privileged publishers decided to print luxury E-goyomi in the form of rebuses for wealthy customers.

It required a measure of culture and imagination on the part of both the artist and the user in order to discern the length of the months. With their low circulation and their private nature, these works managed to escape censorship.

These calendars skilfully concealed numbers indicating the long months. Some are relatively easy to understand. For instance, the thirteen turtles of an anonymous E-goyomi from 1786 indicate the six short months and the seven long months of the year according to their size and arrangement. On another work from 1787, the height of twelve pines gives the alternation of short and long months.

In order to circumvent this monopoly, some privileged publishers decided to print luxury E-goyomi in the form of rebuses for wealthy customers.

Take a good look at this kimono

Others use “mitate”, allusions to traditional culture or Far Eastern legends, and often remain incomprehensible today. Deciphering this kind of calendar was a very popular challenge for literary circles of the time, as shown by two prints from 1765, works by Suzuki Harunobu.

Deciphering this kind of calendar was a very popular challenge for literary circles of the time.

A 1765 print by Suzuki Harunobu, hiding a secret calendar: “The girl by a pond, near a willow tree, thoughtfully looking at a jumping frog”.
A 1765 print by Suzuki Harunobu, hiding a secret calendar: “The girl by a pond, near a willow tree, thoughtfully looking at a jumping frog”.

The first print hiding a calendar is “The girl by a pond, near a willow tree, thoughtfully looking at a jumping frog”. This work refers to the calligrapher Ono no Tofu who, after failing his exams seven times, learned perseverance by watching a frog reach the branch of a willow tree on its eighth attempt.

Another print, “A man carrying a young woman on his back”, depicts Shoki, a demon killer, kidnapping a woman. The metaphor is all the more difficult to elucidate as the print also refers to another episode: the escape of two lovers on Musashi’s moor, from the tales of Ise.

In these two works, the indication of the long months is hidden in the “obi”, the wide belt of the kimonos. But the Shoki print is impossible to decipher in its entirety, unless you are a highly specialised literary scholar in traditional Japanese and Chinese cultures.

In these two works, the indication of the long months is hidden in the “obi”, the wide belt of the kimonos.

The replacement of the traditional Japanese calendar by the Gregorian calendar in 1872 would defeat the E-goyomi. Following the gradual opening of the country to Western culture during the Meiji era (1868–1912), lithography and photography would spell the end of Ukiyo-e.

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