The Old Japanese Names for the Months: Meanings and Origins

Calendar Customs & Traditions

In Japan, it was the late 19th century when the solar calendar was introduced from Western countries for the first time. Until then, the old calendar known as lunisolar calendar was officially used nationwide. According to the old calendar, each month has another name which has different meanings in it. The kanji used in those names represents the meaning, which gives people a clue to guess the (original) meaning. They are still occasionally used in daily situations, and it will be helpful and fun for you to learn Japanese name of the month prior to your trip to Japan. Here is a list of Japanese names of months with meanings

MonthModern nameOld name
Januaryichi-gatsu一月mutsuki睦月
Februaryni-gatsu二月kisaragi如月
san-gatsusan-gatsu三月yayoi弥生
Aprilshi-gatsu四月uzuki卯月
Maygo-gatsu五月satsuki皐月
Juneroku-gatsu六月minazuki水無月
Julyshichi-gatsu七月fumizuki文月
Augusthachi-gatsu八月hazuki葉月
Septemberku-gatsu九月nagatsuki長月
Octoberjuu-gatsu十月kannazuki神無月
Novemberjuuichi-gatsu十一月shimotsuki霜月
Decemberjuuni-gatsu十二月shiwasu師走

1. Mutsuki (睦月) / January 

Mutsuki is Japanese name for January. “Mu”(睦) stands for a good relationship, especially among family members in this case. When it comes to January, most people imagine New Year’s Day when families stay close and spend time together. It resulted in the symbolic name which wishes for a close relationship among family and relatives.

2. Kisaragi (如月) / February

February is called “Kisaragi” in Japanese old calendar. The kanji “如” might look unfamiliar to many as it isn’t used on a daily basis so much. It can be actually substituted for “衣更”, which has the same sound while telling us the original meaning of the name of the month. “衣” means clothing, and “更” refers to further demand for something. Altogether, it means February is the month when you still need several layers of clothing to help you stay warm. It indicates that winter is not completely gone and people back in the old days were aware of the importance to protect themselves from the severe weather.  

  3. Yayoi (弥生) / March

Yayoi is another name for March, which was also used in the Yayoi period (B.C 10th – A.D3th) in Japanese history. “弥” has a meaning which is equivalent to “finally”, indicating that March is the time when plants and flowers finally start to sprout. It celebrates the arrival of spring and the birth of new lives in nature! 

Sakura Shizuoka and Kanagawa

4. Uzuki (卯月) / April

Uzuki refers to April in the solar calendar. “卯” is said to come from “卯の花” (U-no-Hana), a symbolic white flower that blooms in spring. Another theory supports the idea that “卯” was originally “植”, which has the same sound. “植” refers to rice planning, which is carried out every spring throughout in Japan!    

Mount Fuji Shinkansen with rice-fields

5. Satsuki (皐月) / May

May is called “Satsuki” in Japanese old calendar. It has a similar meaning to what we mentioned in April, as May also has an impression associated with rice planting. “皐” is a substitute for “早苗”, which refers to young baby seedlings of rice. 

“Satsuki-bare” (五月晴れ) is a common expression that is usually used to describe the occasional sunny days in the rainy season called Tsuyu (梅雨) from June through mid-July in Japan.

6. Minazuki (水無月) / June

If you have some knowledge of Kanji, you might guess “水無月” means the month without water, but it is actually the opposite! “無” is generally used to express the situation when something is missing, but in this case it means that June is the month with the rice fields filled up with water! You can also imagine the rainy season “梅雨”, which falls into the mid-June to mid-July to remember the confusing name. This time of the year is also the best time to see the beautiful hydrangeas bloom everywhere, for example Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, known also as the Hydrangea Temple.

7. Fumizuki (文月) / July

Fumizuki stands for July, when we have a special annual event called Tanabata (七夕) in Japan! It falls on July 7th, and we celebrate it with iconic ornaments such as huge bamboo with slips of colorful paper attached to it. People write their wishes on it, and hang them over the bamboo, which gives us a clue to understand why the kanji “文” (means letter, sentence, or writings) is used for July. This custom is very unique to Japan even though other Asian countries such as China and Korea also celebrate Tanabata annually.

8. Hazuki (葉月) / August

When summer gets to an end, green leaves (“葉” in Japanese) start to fall or turn different colors, getting ready for the next season: fall. As there is a slight difference in the dates between Japanese old calendar and the solar calendar, Hazuki refers to the beginning of fall in this case. Some may think it is better to avoid traveling Japan during this time of year due to the hot and humid summer weather, but it is also the best time to experience the changes from one season to another while joining memorable events such as summer festivals and fireworks.   

Fireworks hanabi

9. Nagatsuki (長月) / September

The arrival of fall brings us long nights as days get shorter towards winter. It is really understandable that “長” (long) was used to describe September, when we can enjoy spending the long nights watching the beautiful moon. We have a unique custom known as “Otsukimi” (お月見), which literally means moon viewing. Many people spend a relaxing night in their own way by reading books, listening to their favorite music, or doing anything they want.

10. Kannazuki (神無月) / October

Together with June, October is another month that has “無” in its Japanese name. However, unlike June, “無” means “without” in this case, implying that October is a month without Gods (“神” in Japanese). It was widely believed that Gods across Japan get together at this time of the year at the Izumo Grand Shrine (出雲大社), one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan which is situated in Shimane prefecture. So this leaves all the other places without gods!

Izumo Taisha

11. Shimotsuki / November (霜月)

November is called “Shimotsuki” in Japanese old calendar. “霜” refers to frost, which is one of the typical phenomenon at this time of the year that can be seen especially on chilly mornings. As the old calendar is almost one month earlier than the current one, Shimotsuki falls into the current late November to the beginning of January.

12. Shiwasu (師走) / December

It may surprise you that Shiwasu is another name for December, which is the only one among all the 12 months that doesn’t have the kanji “月” meaning month in it. “師” means someone who leads you or teaches you, like teachers or mentors. In this case, however, it is used to describe Buddhist monks who were really busy during the time of year taking care of visitors as well as hosting ritual events. “走” means running, which gives us a clear image of monks getting around in a hurry.

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Back in the olden days, Japanese people named each month based on their respect or belief for nature and natural phenomena, like seasons, which were strongly associated with their daily life.If you know a little about the Japanese climate, you might think why June was described as the month without no water, whereas it is today the month of the rainy season (tsuyu) in Japan. This can be explained by the fact that the old Japanese solar calendar was about a month behind the European calendar. This means that back in the days, minazuki was from July 7th to August 7th, the period without rain! We can feel the seasonal changes from the kanji used in each name to symbolize the meaning of it. Although the unique custom is exclusively used only in Japan, it reminds us of the importance of appreciating the natural beauty of each month! 

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