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A Short History Of Time -OR- Has The 21st Century Really Begun

Author:Tim Boyle, Issue: January 2000, Topic: Commentary

by Time Boyle

The December issue of The Alien Times featured a cover saying The Last Alien Times of the Millennium, and it naturally follows that this issue is The First Alien Times of the New Millennium. Or is it?

In the Feb. '94 issue, we featured an article on the issue of when the 21st Century begins, noting that the majority of Japanese simply assumed that it begins on Jan. 1, 2001, while most people in the West have been working on the assumption that it would begin right along with the Y2K rollover. The grand celebrations that we witnessed this past New Year's Eve were far more grand than any other New Year's celebrations that have ever taken place, and there seems little doubt that next year's events will be much more subdued, at least in most of the world.

An article in the Jan. 6 issue of the Daily Yomiuri, however, reveals that there is still considerable confusion on the issue here in Japan. It was entitled, 'Ferris wheel to be built for 2001 countdown event' and began with the following enigmatic words: 'Now that the new millennium has begun, an Osaka amusement park company will launch a project in mid-January to celebrate the next big event: the turn of the century. The company will begin building the nation's largest Ferris wheel, to be completed in time for a centennial countdown event at the year's end.'

So, we seem to have a rather interesting situation, with both the new decade (which everyone seems to agree began this month) and the new millennium having already begun, while the new century is still a year away! (By the way, now that the decade of the nineties has come and gone, what do we call this decade?) Clearly, there is an inconsistency here.

The problem is actually the fault of the Romans, who didn't include the concept of zero in their numbering system. When our present calendar years were first devised in the 4th Century, they tried to calculate from historical records when Jesus was born and begin counting from there. They didn't, however, begin with zero, since they didn't have that concept, but instead began with 1 AD. Thus, there is no 0 BC or 0 AD, with the calendar going directly from 1 BC to 1 AD. Therefore, from that standpoint, the Japanese way of looking at the issue is technically correct. The 21st Century (as well as the 3rd Millennium) begin in 2001. But then, the same is true with each decade as well. Otherwise, the first decade would only have had 9 years. But I know of no one who thinks the decade of the nineties still has a year to go!

Just as an interesting aside, we now know that the 4th Century Romans were at least a few years off in their calculations, as the events referred to in the Bible that were associated with Christ's birth have been positively dated a few years earlier than what they thought. King Herod, for instance, died in what we now call 4 BC, and so that would put Jesus' birth a year or two before that. Thus, that would make this year in reality to be 2005 or 2006.

Needless to say, it is not an option for us to try to correct the present calendar to reflect that fact, and besides, time is only a relative concept anyway. We are stuck with our present system, like it or not.

In fact, the Japanese have the additional problem (from my western bias) of having to deal with another way of counting years, namely the year of the emperor, with this year being Heisei 12. On top of that, they, like the Romans, had a different way of counting than that which is presently employed. Prior to the end of WWII, the Japanese counted their age as 1 year old at the date of birth. With the advent of the American Occupation, however, Japanese all became a year younger (to the delight of many, no doubt) when the Western system was adopted. It wasn't totally abandoned, however, as, for instance, when the centenarian twins Kin san and Gin san first became celebrities almost 10 years ago (they're still going strong as the world's oldest twins), they were pictured as being 100 years old, when, in fact, they were only 99 according to the official calendar.

While the kazoedoshi reckoning of age used traditionally has for the most part gone out of use, the method of counting time prior to birth is still based on that same idea. This results in the Japanese considering a normal pregnancy to be 10 months long. (Aren't you mothers glad it really isn't? Nine is enough!) It's still approximately 270 days from conception to birth, but according to their way of counting, you are in effect a month old already at conception.

Another time related difference between Japan and other countries is the use of gengo (the year of the emperor's reign) for counting years. The Japanese way of counting years is related to the kazoedoshi system in that the final year of one emperor's reign is also the first year of the next era, no matter how short it is. Thus, while 1989 is Showa 64, the last year of the reign of Emperor Hirohito (now referred to in Japan as Emperor Showa), it is also Heisei 1, and thus 1990 was Heisei 2. This also the reason you'll find very few people who were born in Showa 1. The Taisho Emperor died just a few days before the end of 1926, and so Showa 1 was only a few days long. On Jan. 1, 1927, it was already Showa 2. Even though the gengo system is unwieldy (especially when you need to figure out how many years ago Meiji 25 or whatever was), it is a strongly held tradition and is even mandatory on all government documents.

When Einstein first came out with his theory of relativity, he had something far more profound in mind, but when it comes to this aspect of time as well, it certainly is relative.

<< Religious Activities in English: January 2000 | Master Index | New Millennium, Age Old Question >>

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