Calendars come in all shapes and sizes, and this is as true in the past as it is today. In the Edo period in Japan there was a popular kind of calendar called egoyomi, or “picture calendars”. These were visual calendars for people who could not read.
At the time in Japan people used a calendar where each month had either 29 or 30 days. The months with 29 days were called “small months” (Sho no tsuki); those with 30 days were “large months” (Dai no tsuki). Once every two or three years there was a thirteenth month called Uru-zuki.
The calendar was quite complicated compared to our streamlined version today, since every year the arrangement of “large” and “small” months would vary. Looking at the picture calendars was a pretty easy way to learn about the old way of keeping track of the twelve (or thirteen) months of the year.
During the Edo era there was quite a vogue for these visual calendars. Appearing at the time when ukiyo-e were also in their heyday, it comes as no surprise to see that the imagery is also as vibrant and pretty as woodblock prints.
What is also interesting here is that there was a “hidden” element to the Egoyomi too, since the Shogun had forbidden the production of calendars except for certain places. The Egoyomi, then, were for private entertainment and the calendar function might not have been obvious at first.
Let’s take a look at these secret picture calendars…
Images courtesy of National Diet Library
Anyone glancing at the picture on the left could be forgiving for not seeing that it is a calendar. But the bubbles that this child is blowing are actually representing the “large” and “small” months of the year.
This is a picture of an ee janai ka carnival from the late Edo period. But it’s also more than this — it’s a calendar. The men represent the “large” months while the women are the “small” ones, and the child stands in for the thirteenth “leap” month. The clothes the people wear are also all connected to their respective month.
There are many examples where characters are hidden inside the picture. The year in which this calendar appeared was the Year of the Dog, hence the animal, drawn from the famous fairytale “Momotaro”. On his shoulder is the character for “large” (dai) and the Chinese numerals of the longer months of the year are all concealed somewhere in the picture.
Looking at Egoyomi is almost like solving a puzzle. But not all of them are so complex. There are plenty of Egoyomi that are very simple.
This Egoyomi is themed around tsuba Japanese sword guards. The hole in the middle where the blade would go varies according to the whether the month is long or short.
This calendar is from 1840. Being the Year of the Rat, so the calendar forms a narrative featuring two rat protagonists.
1859. In the “earthly branches” (junishi) way of telling time, the year corresponds to the sheep (or goat) in the Chinese and Japanese zodiac, and so we have the horned animal greeting us at the start of the year.
This one’s a little harder to make out but look closely and you can spot the animals from the Chinese/Japanese zodiac (monkey, rabbit, rat et al)
This one probably is easy even for Japanese people today. It’s from 1849, with the top row showing the long months and the shorter ones along the bottom.
This calendar is packed more with words than pictures. The information tells the reader about forecasting good or bad fortune for certain days for the year.
Here the calendar is arranged around a plum tree branch, with the names of the months in a stamp-like design.
Each month here features a waka poem with the number of the month and whether it is a “large” or “small” one. Using poetry no doubt functions as a mnemonic.
Another calendar themed around sword guards. Note the animals, which represent each month of the year while careful observers might spot that the rim of the guard features numerals.
This 1799 calendar looks like a sugoroku puzzle. Each cell features a month and an illustration representative of the time of year.