History and the notion of time | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

History and the notion of time

Textbook history attempts to compress the events of a thousand years into one volume that will chronicle how we came to be, from the Cave Man to the stillborn First Philippine Republic in 1899.

We went through a succession of Spanish, British, American, and Japanese occupations before our independence was finally recognized, and the Republic of the Philippines was born from the ashes of World War II.

Having taught college-level Philippine history since the 1980s, I often wonder how the same coverage is imparted to grade school children for whom history is remote as a fairy tale, the passage of time so wide that it goes beyond counting on all their fingers and toes.

Even if we skipped a million years of the prehistoric period, the time before written records, the material remains way too much to cover in one college semester or a whole academic year in Grade 5.


The lockdown has forced me to rethink my idea of time. My body clock has been reset, such that I now go to bed as the first rays of the morning break the darkness of night. I sleep as birds chirp away cheerfully outside my bedroom window when previously, at this time, one heard vehicles droning louder as Ayala Avenue came to life.

Sorting out my collection of textbooks recently made it clear to me that the 20th century is divided and presented first as the Philippines under America and a succession of governors-general, then we had the Japanese Occupation, then the Republic to the present. The last part is further divided into a succession of presidents: Quezon, Osmeña, Laurel, Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia, Macapagal, Marcos, Aquino (mom), Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino (son), and Duterte. How do all these form our notion of time?

As a predominantly Christian country, the high points of the year for us are Christmas and Easter. For many, the Holy Week break was also a fixture in our lives, but this year there were no live processions or Visita Iglesia. Masses went online, and you had the choice to follow the Jesuit ones in Philippine time or the Pope in Rome time. One message stood out from all the Hallmark-type Easter greetings that filled my message boxes last Sunday: a cartoon showing the risen Christ emerging from the tomb. As Jesus peeks out from the rock that had been rolled to one side to give him passage from darkness to light, a Roman centurion shouts: “Hoy! Quarantine regulations, go back inside!” Easter has never been like this in living memory.

People of my generation were taught to reckon time based on the birth and death of Christ. The years and centuries were marked with BC (Before Christ) and AD, which, contrary to popular belief, is not “After the Death of Christ,” but Latin for “Anno Domini” or The Year of Our Lord, starting from His birth and not death. Old English usage punctuated the simpler BC and AD, such that B.C. came after the year number, as in 300 B.C., while A.D. was used before the year number, as in A.D. 1898. To omit the reference to Christianity and be more exclusive, we now use CE for Common Era and BCE for Before Common Era, which is basically the same Western notion of time.


The Japanese use the Western calendar, too, but in official documents, they use their own reckoning of time based on the reign names of a succession of emperors going way back to the 7th century. A living Japanese emperor is known by his birth name, and after his death or abdication by a reign name.

So my father, born in 1925 during the term of Emperor Yoshihito, was born on the 14th year of Taisho (Great Justice) or simply Taisho 14. I was born in the time of Emperor Hirohito, and my birth year converts to the 36th year of Showa (Brilliant Harmony) or Showa 36.


My favorite nephew was born in the time of Emperor Akihito, and his Western birth year corresponds to the 15th year of Heisei (Achieving Peace) or Heisei 15.

So my nephew’s son, if born during the term of the current Emperor Naruhito, will fall under the reign name Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony). How will we remember the time marked by COVID-19? Philippine history uses the Japanese Occupation as a reference point to mark the prewar and postwar periods, but old people refer to the former as “Pistaym” (Peacetime), just as we will probably remember pre- and post-lockdown.

I can only hope we all emerge from the lockdown changed, and see the world with new eyes.

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TAGS: First Republic in 1899, History, Philippine Republic, textbook

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