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Reflection of 2017, Dawn of 2018

2017.12.22

In Japan, each month has a unique name that signifies its characteristics and seasonality.  The last month of the year, December is called “Shiwasu”.  What does this mean?

“Shiwasu” – The Busiest Month of the Year


December is a time of reflection for Japanese people.  It is the final month of the year; and a  time to review if the grand intentions for the year set in January were successfully achieved.  But before having sitting down to ponder memories for yourselves, there are customarily many things to get through before the year-end.

People visit each other to give thanks for favours done throughout the year. Gift giving, called Oseibo, is essential to show gratitude for kindness shown towards you and your family by colleagues and acquaintances.  And it must not be forgotten to write and post all-important New Year cards early enough to make sure they arrive on the first of January.  All cleaning and decluttering need to be done to welcome the New Year.

It is so busy that the most common name for December is Shiwasu.  When it is written in Chinese letters, it is 「師走」.  This literally means “the teachers are running”.

What is the Origin?  Who are the Teachers?


Although December is a busy month, and the image of a teacher running around to make sure things are organized is analogous to the hecticness, this is not definitely the origin of the idea.

In the lunar calendar, Shiwasu was used for the end of December to early February.  In the new calendar, it is used for December.  Some people consider Shiwasu should be used only to indicate the period from the end of November to the middle of December, which is the busiest time, with preparations for the passing of the Old Year and the welcoming of the incoming New Year.

There are several theories about the origin of this name, and there is no definitive conclusion.  The leading and the most popular ones are:

Running Teachers (here it means monks) 「師が馳せる」:  In olden days, the custom was to ask for a monk to come to your house to recite a sutra, to clear up and bless the spirit in the house.  Naturally, the monks were busy visiting as many houses as they could, so they ran.

End of Year 「年果つ」:  Literally, December is the end of one year, and it came from the pronunciation of year “toshi” and exhausted “hatsuru” = “toshi hatsuru” = “shihasu” = “shiwasu”.

The ancient name for the twelfth month「しはす」:  Literature exists suggesting that December was actually called “shiwasu” in 8th century Japan.  The Chinese letters suggesting that teachers are running around were simply allocated from the phonetics at a later date.

When Does This Special Name Get Used?


This name is used as a regular opening phrase for letters written in December.  If visits are not possible, letters are sent to customers and friends to convey appreciation for business relationships, for any favours done, and to offer wishes for a good New Year.  This is why the name for December is used more fondly than the other eleven.

Other months are called:

January:  Mutsuki – A month of family gatherings.

February: Kisaragi = A month to layer up to overcome the cold.

March:  Yayoi = A month when a new cycle of life finally starts.

April:  Uzuki = A month in which flowers bloom.

May:  Satsuki = A month to plant new rice seedlings.

June:  Minazuki = A month to draw water into rice paddies.

July:  Fumitsuki = A month for airing documents at the end of the rainy season.

August:  Hazuki = A month to see the leaves starting to fall – the beginning of Autumn.

September:  Nagatsuki = A month in which the evenings gets longer.

October:  Kannazuki = A month in which all the spirits gather in a sacred place called Izumo, so all the shrines are empty.  There is an exception that in Izumo itself, this month is called “Kamiarizuki” which means the month in which all spirits are present.

November:  Shimotsuki = A month when frost starts.

Seasons Felt, Appreciated into the New Year


And then we are back to December, Shiwasu.  These meanings are just examples of a variety of theories.  But what Japanese people historically did was to give all phonetics seasonally suitable Chinese letters to lend them appropriate meanings.  These beautiful names are used in poems, and as opening phrases in letters.

Caring for your surroundings, paying attention to the changing seasons, and making sure that others are feeling the passing seasons in good health and in good spirit are important for Japanese culture.  These monthly names are in one sense a tell-tale of Japanese cultural sensitivity.

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