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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

The third system was that of the sexagenary cycle


style="text-align: justify;">Before beginning to read Japanese history it is necessary to know something of the chronology followed in its pages. There have been in Japan four systems for counting the passage of time. The first is by the reigns of the Emperors. That is to say, the first year of a sovereign's reign--reckoning from the New Year's day following his accession--became the 1 of the series, and the years were thenceforth numbered consecutively until his death or abdication. This method might be sufficiently accurate if the exact duration of each reign were known as well as the exact sequence of the reigns. But no such precision could be expected in the case of unwritten history, transmitted orally from generation to generation. Thus, while Japanese annalists, by accepting the aggregate duration of all the reigns known to them, arrive at the conclusion that the first Emperor, Jimmu, ascended the throne in the year 660 B.C., it is found on analysis that their figures assign to the first seventeen sovereigns an average age of 109 years.

The second system was by means of periods deriving their name (nengo) from some remarkable incident. Thus, the discovery of copper in Japan was commemorated by calling the year Wado (Japanese copper), and the era so called lasted seven years. Such a plan was even more liable to error than the device of reckoning by reigns, and a specially confusing feature was that the first year of the period dated retrospectively

from the previous New Year's day, so that events were often recorded as having occurred in the final year of one period and in the opening year of another. This system was originally imported from China in the year A.D. 645, and is at present in use, the year 1910 being the forty-third of the Meiji (Enlightenment and Peace) period.

The third system was that of the sexagenary cycle. This was operated after the manner of a clock having two concentric dials, the circumference of the larger dial being divided into ten equal parts, each marked with one of the ten "celestial signs," and the circumference of the smaller dial being divided into twelve equal parts each marked with one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. The long hand of the clock, pointing to the larger dial, was supposed to make one revolution in ten years, and the shorter hand, pointing to the small dial, revolved once in twelve years. Thus, starting from the point where the marks on the two dials coincide, the long hand gained upon the short hand by one-sixtieth each year, and once in every sixty years the two hands were found at the point of conjunction. Years were indicated by naming the "celestial stem" and the zodiacal sign to which the imaginary hands happen to be pointing, just as clock-time is indicated by the minutes read from the long hand and the hours from the short. The sexagenary cycle came into use in China in 623 B.C. The exact date of its importation into Japan is unknown, but it was probably about the end of the fourth century A.D. It is a sufficiently accurate manner of counting so long as the tale of cycles is carefully kept, but any neglect in that respect exposes the calculator to an error of sixty years or some multiple of sixty. Keen scrutiny and collation of the histories of China, Korea, and Japan have exposed a mistake of at least 120 years connected with the earliest employment of the sexagenary cycle in Japan.

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