21 June 2016

Months of the Year

When first learning how to say the date in Japanese it can seem strange that the months of the year are just given numbers. In English we do that for years and days of the month, but for some reason feel that months should have their own special names, even though we often use numbers as an abbreviation. In Japanese the number is the official name so August is simply 8月 (hachi-gatsu).

However, when the Chinese lunar calendar was used in Japan each of the months had its own special name as well as the number. Most of the names are quite poetic and fit in well with the four seasons, but have dropped out of use. As the lunar calendar begins in the middle of February, they're often a month or so out of synch with the weather in the solar calendar, although a few survive in idioms and as alternatives to the more standard numbering system.

睦月 むつき Mutsuki 1月 January
There are a couple of possible explanations for this name. 睦 means 'harmonious' or 'friendly', so it was the month to be friendly, greeting people as part of the New Year. Alternatively it could be from 元月 もとつき (mototsuki, origin/base month) as it is the first month of the year, and the pronunciation changed over time from mototsuki to mutsuki.

如月 きさらぎ Kisaragi 2月 February
February is a cold month, so you need to wear another layer of clothes, hence the name 衣更着. 衣 ki(nu) is clothes or cloth, 更 sara means 'even more' and 着  is the ki of kimono, literally 'a thing for wearing'. So 'clothes and even more clothes'.

弥生 やよい Yayoi 3月 March
The month when the grass at last 弥 ya grows 生 oi again. The Yayoi period, between approximately the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., is named after an area in Tokyo called Yayoi where an earthenware pot from the era was discovered in 1884.

卯月 うづき Uzuki 4月 April
The month when 卯の花 unohana blooms.

Deutzia crenata 01.jpg

皐月 さつき Satsuki 5月 May
Satsuki is still quite widely used in idioms, although usually written as 五月.
五月晴れ Satsuki-bare Fine weather in May
五月雨 Satsuki-ame Rain in early summer
五月闇 Satsuki-yami Gloomy weather during the rainy season

This is because, as the lunar year starts a month later, 皐月 was the month of the rainy season. However, as its association with being the 5th month of the year haven't been lost, the words are often used to refer to the weather in May. The month isn't names after the rains, though, and sa is an old word for ploughing, or is short for 早苗 sanae 'early shoots'. Clearly agriculture was more of a concern than the weather!

In the film となりのトトロ (Tonari no Totoro), the two girls are called Satsuki and Mei, both named after this month.

水無月 みなづき Minazuki 6月 June
The kanji mean no water (水 + 無), but the na was originally no, so it was 'the month of water' rather than 'no water month'. The kanji for 'not' was just used for its sound. This doesn't mean rainwater, as the rainy season was the previous month in the lunar calendar. Instead, this is referring to the filling of paddy fields.

There is an alternative theory that it refers to the fact that this is the month after the rainy season in the lunar calendar, so it really is (relatively) 'without water', but given that the name of previous month isn't related to rain, as explanations go, it doesn't hold much water.

文月 ふみづき Fumizuki 7月 July
Fumi means letter or writings, and one likely explanation is that this is the month of Tanabata when people write their wishes or poems on strips of paper called 短冊 tanzaku.

葉月 はづき Hazuki 8月 August
The month of leaves (葉 ha), as it's the start of Autumn

長月 ながつき Nagatsuki 9月 September
One explanation is that this is the month when the nights start getting longer 長.

神無月 かんなづき Kannazuki 10月 October
The kanji means no gods (神 + 無). There is a folk etymology that all the gods of Japan would go to Izumo in Shimane prefecture during October, so there would be no gods anywhere else. However, as with Minazuki, the na is probably no, giving 'the gods' month'; the harvest is in so this is the month for celebration, with parades and giving thanks to the gods.

霜月 しもつき Shimozuki 11月 November
The month of frost (霜 shimo).

師走 しわす Shiwasu 12月 December
The kanji mean 師 teacher and 走 run. The end of the year is very busy for Buddhist priests. A likely origin could be 師馳す shi +hasu. Hasu or haseru in modern Japanese, means to run or hurry.


  1. Very interesting post it is. It is really a different one. Thanks to make us aware with the name of months and the season belongs to them.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think it's a shame that they're not used much any more.

  2. Hello. My name is Arum. Thank you so much for the information. This article really help me for my homework. But, can you tell me the source of this information? Is it from a book?
    Thank you again