Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reading Japanese dates on stock certificates

Japanese stock certificates are known for their elegant designs. Produced as colorful high quality prints, these securities often show little masterpieces. A tempting theme to collect. For classification purposes, besides the name of the paper's issuer you also need to know the certificate's issue date. Many of us however are not familiar with the Japanese language and writing system. In this post, I'll show you how you can recognize and read dates on your Japanese shares.

Share certificate of the Nippon Shoji Shintaku Kabushiki Kaisha, Osaka
Nippon Shoji Shintaku Kabushiki Kaisha
in English: The Japan Commercial Investment & Trust Co., Ltd.
10 Shares of 50 Yen, Osaka 1917

A minority of Japanese stock certificates are bilingual (Japanese-English). 
double-click image to enlarge
Source: HWPH

It requires only a few steps to learn how to read Japanese dates
That is correct. You need to :
  • recognize the year, month and day characters
  • know how Japanese numbers are composed
  • know about formal numbers
  • understand the date system
  • and read in the right direction.
The combination of each one of these skills seems to make the task tough. But each step is easy to learn. Stay with me all the way down. I'll guide you step by step through the process. At the end of this post I will congratulate you because you will have mastered a new skill : reading Japanese dates !

明 治 元 年
first year of the Meiji reign : 1868

The year, month and day characters in the common date format
The date 2014年04月30日 is written in the modern commonly used date format. It stands for April 30, 2014. The example shows that, together with Hindu-Arabic numerals, also Japanese characters are used. These characters stand for year, month and day, and it is important you can recognize them :
  • year :
  • month of year :
  • day of month :
In Japanese, the combination of this charachters form the word 年月日 'date'.

How to read Japanese numbers
You can write numbers in Japanese in two ways: with Hindu-Arabic numerals (1, 2, ..) , as in the date example above, or with Chinese numerals 一, 二 , ...). Guess what : old Japanese shares use the Chinese numerals for indicating the year, the month of the year and the day of the month. The table below shows the numbers 1 to 10. Look at the first two columns and for the moment just ignore the last two columns. 

double-click image to enlarge

As you notice, in Japanese, there is a special character for the number 10 (and also for 100, 1000, et cetera). Watch out now, to form a Japanese number larger than ten you need to apply the following rule :
If a number is followed by a smaller number, add both.

If a number is followed by a larger number, multiply them.

Some examples : 
  • 15 is written as  十五 ( 10 + 5 )
  • 36 is written as 三 十 六 ( 3 x 10 ) + 6
  • 23 is written as 二十 ( 2 x 10 ) + 3
  • 99 is written as  九十九 ( 9 x 10 ) + 9
This is fun, isn't it ? Now, you can already read Japanese numbers.

share certificate of Sony Corporation
Sony Kabushiki Kaisha - Sony Corporation
50 Shares of 50 Yen, specimen, 1970
Seal, Japanese (at left) and Western (at right)
 facsimile signatures of co-founder Masaru Ibuka

You too can understand the nengō date system
The common date format is not used on Japanese stocks and bonds, except for some recent certificates. In Japan, other date systems exist and the one we need is the nengō date system ( 'nen' or  means year)It is the official system for dating years used in virtually all government and private business.

Historically, Japanese dates were expressed as years of a named era called a nengō. The system was introduced from China around the 7th century. With the advent of modern Japan under the emperor Meiji, the eras have been tied to the reign of the current emperor since 1868. When emperor Hirohito ascended the throne on 25 Dec 1926, he chose the name Shōwa for his reign title. Therefore 1926 was the first year of Shōwa. Shōwa 2 represents 1927 and so on.  Here is an overview of the modern eras :
  • Meiji era, characters : 明 治 , first year of reign : 1868
  • Taishō era, characters :  大 正 , first year of reign : 1912
  • Shōwa era, characters :  昭 和 , first year of reign : 1926
  • Heisei era, characters :   平 成 , first year of reign : 1989
It is important that you can recognize these era names.

In Japanese writing, a specific nengō year starts with the emperor's era name followed by the year of the emperor's reign and ends with the year character . Two examples:
  • 昭 和 三 十 六 年  is Shōwa 36 (3x10+6), the 36th year in the Shōwa reign
  •  大 正 十 五 年 is Taishō 15 (10+5), the 15th year in the Taishō reign

For indicating the first year of reign, the "first" character is used.
So,  明 治 元 年 indicates the first year in the Meiji reign, which corresponds to 1868.

Sony Corporation logo used in 1970 on a share certificate.
Trinitron and Bravia televisions, Betamax videocassettes, Walkman and Discman, Handycam, Vaio laptops and Playstation consoles. Sony was founded as Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Corporation (Totsuko) in 1946. In 1955 Sony was chosen as the new brand name derived from the Latin "Sonus" (sonic) and the American "Sonny", a term used to call a boy or young man in a familiar way. The first Sony-branded product, the TR-55 transistor radio, appeared in 1955. The name Sony was easy to pronounce everywhere in the world.  The company name was changed into Sony in 1958. At the time, it was rarely seen that a Japanese company used Roman letters to spell its name instead of the traditional Kanji characters.

Once you know the era name and the year, you can calculate the western year like this :

the era's starting year + the era year - 1

You need to subtract 1 since the first year of the reign is year 1 and not year 0. Also here, two examples :
  • 明 治 元 年 is the first year of the Meiji reign : 1868+1-1 = 1868
  • 昭 和 三 十 六 年 is the 36th year of the Shōwa reign : 1926+36-1 = 1961
So far, easy peasy ! You are only two steps away from mastering your new skill, so carry on.

Formal numbers prevent fraud
If you think about it, it is very easy to change a one  into a three 三. A three can be changed into a five 五. And a ten 十can be altered into a thousand 千.  To prevent impostors from adding a few strokes, a separate set of numerals, called daiji, exists for use in legal and financial documents. Over time, also these formal number characters evolved and were replaced by modern versions. For your convenience I repeat here the same number table. You will need the last two columns to identify the formal numbers that were printed on the certificates.

Your first practise with a modern share  ! 
We will read two Japanese dates on the Sony share shown earlier. Try to find the year character . Don't worry if this takes a while. I don't know Japanese either but after a while, you'll get better at recognizing it. It may help for looking for the month and day character. Let me show you where the dates are located on the certificate. I've underlined the dates in red in the following image (double-click the image to enlarge).

Look at the first date. Do you spot the year, month and day characters ?

After you have located the year character, you can find the era name at the start of the date. Let's break it down into the individual date parts :
  • 昭 和 Shōwa reign, starts at 1926
  • 2x10+1= year 21 of the era: obsolete formal numbers used for 2, 10 and 1
  •  year character
  • 5 
  •  month character
  • 7
  • day character
This resolves to 1926+21-1 = 1946, 5th month, 7th day, or 7 May 1946, which is the date of Sony's incorporation.  Well done ! You've just read your first Japanese date on a share.

The second date on the Sony certificate is the issue date. Try to figure out the date by yourself ! You've probably noticed that this certificate also has its text printed in English. So you can compare your outcome. Before we try older certificates, you should learn about a final step in the process. You are almost there !

Writing (and reading) directions in Japanese
On modern stock certificates the writing direction is similar to the western way : horizontally from left to right. The Sony share illustrated earlier above is a good example.

On older papers, characters are written in columns, which are ordered from right to left and read from top to bottom.  As an example, we will use the Matsushita share shown just here below.

share certificate of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd (Panasonic)
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. 
100 Shares of 50 Yen, specimen, 1968

A variant of the latter, are the horizontal lines of characters written from right to left in one character columns. This kind of writing is used in case of titles, signs, company names, dates et cetera. On older share certificates company names and denominations are written in this manner, but I have not seen dates written that way (yet).  But there are many coins like that as shown in the example here :

1 Sen coin, Taishō 7 (1918)
This is an example of writing dates from right to left in one character columns.
At the bottom of the left image, you can detect the year character  at the left.
The era name, 大 正 Taishō is at the right and written in a right to left direction. 
In between is the era year 7.

A summary on Japanese reading directions :
  1. If the text is written in columns then read nengō years from top to bottom.
  2. If the text is written horizontally, then you must determine the direction of the text :
    • look for the year character   which will mark the end a nengō year
    • find the era name, see examples above, which marks the start of a nengō year
    • If you find the year character at the right of the era name, then read the year numbers from left to right.
    • If you find the year character at the left of the era name, then read the year numbers from right to left.
  3. As a result of this bidirectional writing, the reading of the era year number must also be done "bidirectional".
 A right-to-left example : 年 五 十 正 大 
  • The year character 年 is at the left. 
  • The era is at the right of the year character  正 大 : Taishō written from right to left. 
  • Conclusion: read the year numbers 五 十 from right to left. A 十 ten is followed, in the right to left direction, by a 五 five, so we need to add the five :  15 (10+5). This is the 15th year in the Taishō reign.

Detail from the Matsushita share certificate. The National brand logo, written in Japanese, is also repeated in the underprint pattern. Those tiny characters measure about 2x4mm and can be discerned with a good scan resolution of 600dpi. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. was founded in Osaka 1918. Its subsidiary Matsushita Communication Industrial prototyped the MADIC I computer in 1959. Besides Panasonic other known Matsushita brands are National and Technics. Today it is one of the largest electronics multinationals in the world. The name was changed into Panasonic Corporation in 2008. 

Mission completed after the next practice !
Time for another exercise, this time you will read a date written in columns. We'll use the Matsushita share. I've marked the location of the date with a red rectangle. As expected, in legal and financial documents formal numbers are used. By the way, double-click the detail image of the date and see what amazing multi-color guilloché patterns are visible in the underprint.

From top to bottom, we can recognize the following date parts :
  • 昭 和 Shōwa reign, starts at 1926
  • 4x10+3=43rd year of the era, obsolete formal numbers used
  •  "year" character
  • 7
  •  "month" character
  • 10+9=19
  • "day" character
This resolves to 1926+43-1 = 1968, 7th month, 19th day, or 19 July 1968, the issue date of this certificate. Excellent ! You can read Japanese dates on a share written in columns as well. Mission completed ! As promised : congratulations !

Optional exercise : Taishō era share certificate

share certificate of Tsingtao Grand Hotel Company

Tsingtao Grand Hotel Company 
50 Shares of 50 Yen Taishō 5 (1916)
text in Japanese and English
double-click images to enlarge
Source: Boone Shares 

This Tsingtao Grand Hotel share displays two dates, both marked 
with the red rectangles in the image above.  
We'll use the date at the right. It says :  
大 正 Taishō era (starts at 1912) , 五 年 5th year, 
月 4th month, 2x10 + 9 = 29th day
This resolves to : 1916, 29th May

Bonus track : telling which type of date is printed
When investigating a Japanese stock certificate you will likely find two dates. In general, you can assume that on shares with two dates the most recent one is the issue date and the other one is the date of incorporation or establishment.

But in some cases the print could mention more than two dates. In many situations these dates are labeled with preceding words indicating whether the following date is a date of incorporation or a date of issue. Here are some further hints for identifying these type of dates.

incorporation, foundation or establishment
A date of incorporation (establishment, foundation)  is often preceded with labels like these :
  • 'incorporation' : 設立 ; or 成立 
  • 'incorporation date' : 設立 年月日 ; or 成立 年月日 
  • 'incorporation registration' : 設立 登記 
  • 'incorporation registration date' : 設立 登記 年月日 
  • 'company incorporation' : 会社 成立; or 会社 成立 (の means 'of'','from') 
  • ... other possible combinations and terms are possible

First row, from left to right : incorporation registration (Tsingtao Grand Hotel certificate), incorporation date (Matsushita certificate), incorporation registration (Nippon Omoshi certificate, see below). Second row :  company incorporation (Sony certificate)

issue, issuance
A date of issue is often printed as a stand-alone date or may also be preceded with labels like these :
  • 'issue date' : 発行 年月日 
  • 'stock issue date' : 株式 発行 年月日, or : 株式 発行 年月日(の means 'of') 
  • 'this stock issue date' : 本 株式 発行 年月日(as a prefix character 本 means 'this') 
  • 'share certificate date' : 株券 年月日 
  • other combinations are possible 

From left to right : 'this stock issue date' (Matsushita certificate), 'stock issue's date' (Sony certificate)

Some extra caveats
At last, there are few things you should be aware of when it comes to identifying Japanese dates in particular and Japanese texts in general :
  1. Words are often written without spaces in between them. 
  2. Text is allowed to wrap from one line to the next without taking into account the word boundaries. In case of writing in colums, a word could continue on the next column (at the left).

Exercise : Meiji era certificate with date written over two columns.
Nippon Omoshi Stone Weight Company
5 shares of 50 Yen
detail: example of date written over two columns 

The dates on the left (issue) and the right (establishment) are printed in single columns.
The grid printed in the middle countains more dates, written over two columns.
I picked one of them, see the detail image. It says :
right column : 明治 Meiji era (starts at 1868) , 三十 3x10+8=38th 年 year, 
left column : 5th month, 五5 th day
This resolves to : 1905, 5th May

With this last example I conclude this extended post and want to thank you for staying until the end. Please note :
  1. You can send me scan of a Japanese certificate if you have trouble identifying a date, or if you want to have a confirmation of your outcomes. 
  2. I plan a follow up article, maybe for this year, with more Japanese scripophily, but I still need to research this matter a bit further. You can help me with this by mailing me high resolution scans of bilingual Japanese certificates no matter the period.


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  1. Fantastic job on this Franky! I have not seen this anywhere. Keep up the great work!