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How Javanese calendars and culture influence Indonesian President Joko Widodo's decisions

ABC News - July 26, 2023

Natasya Salim – Today is Wednesday. But for some Indonesians, it's not just any Wednesday – it's a "Pon Wednesday".

Pon Wednesday exists in the Javanese calendar and has been picked three times by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, to announce his cabinet reshuffles.

Jokowi also picked that particular day to revoke Indonesia's COVID-19 pandemic status in 2023.

Pon Wednesday is considered a good day according to the Javanese calendar – Jokowi also happens to be born on that day.

Like many of Indonesia's former presidents, Jokowi is Javanese and experts say Javanese culture plays an important part in political decision-making.

So what is "Pon Wednesday" and why is it so special?

Javanese calendars used to determine 'neptu'

Javanese people, from the island of Java, acknowledge multiple calendars. These include the seven-day Gregorian calendar, from Monday to Sunday, and a five-day week called Pasaran.

The Javanese names of the days in the Pasaran week are Legi, Pahing, Pon, Wage, and Kliwon. Both calendars are culturally important and read concurrently to determine a person's fate.

Therefore, each day is not just a "Wednesday" or "Pon", it's a combination, so Pon Wednesday.

Also, each day in both calendars has been assigned a value, derived from the Javanese traditional bible.

For example, Monday on the Gregorian calendar has been allocated the value four. In the Pasaran calendar, days also have corresponding values, as shown in the table below.

Javanese people use these calendars to predict the success and suitability of marriages, career, fate, fortune and luck by calculating their "neptu".

A person's "neptu" is determined by adding two values: the value assigned to the day of the week you were born on the Gregorian calendar, and the corresponding value on the Pasaran calendar.

For example, if you're born on Wednesday, July 26 – which this week corresponds with Pon in the Pasaran calendar – your neptu is 7 + 7 = 14.

There are about eight variations of "good" and "bad" neptu, according to Javanese culture researcher Dr Dhoni Zustiyantoro.

In one variation, the numbers five, 14, 23, and 32 are considered lucky. And four, 13, 22, and 31 are seen as unlucky.

Dr Zustiyantoro said Pon Wednesday was considered an especially "good day".

"Day of birth that falls on 'Pon Wednesday' is believed to have a connection to distinctive brain qualities such as tenacity at work, hard-working qualities, and responsibility in carrying out duties," he said.

The calendars can also be used work out if a couple are suited to each other.

Dr Zustiyantoro said Javanese couples have gone so far as to cancel marriages when they found out that the value of their neptus added together resulted in an unlucky number.

He said Javanese culture had a long tradition of reading and interpreting signs and calendars.

"The Javanese people, for hundreds of years, have been observing the actions and characters of people who were born on certain days," he said.

"They then associated them to the incidents and phenomenon related to the universe."

When Jokowi's decision-making is viewed through a Javanese cultural lens, including announcing some of his cabinet reshuffles on 'Pon Wednesday', Dr Zustiyantoro said Jokowi could be trying to impart 'Pon Wednesday' qualities to his subordinates.

"He is trying to transmit [these qualities] to anyone, which in this context would be his subordinates, the ministers, coalition and others who he wants to work with," he said.

Javanese people and culture also play a broader role on how Jokowi makes political decisions.

The Indonesian president is a very popular politician among voters in Java, who represent about 60 per cent of the national vote. In the 2019 election, Jokowi won most of his votes in four Java provinces.

Jokowi is "very dominant in Java", Dr Zustiyantoro said. "I think he's fully aware of [that] and considers the Javanese culture as an important part of a political strategy," he said.

Dr Sri Margana, history researcher at the University of Gadjah Mada, said Jokowi's Javanese culture was very visible in the way he faced or dealt with his rivals.

He said Javanese people tended to be "anti-conflict", and Jokowi appointed politicians who were previously against him as his vice-presidents during his first and second terms.

Another example was when Jokowi won his second presidential election against another candidate Prabowo Subianto, and proceeded to make him the country's defence minister.

"The characteristic of Javanese people is their flexibility in dealing with various attacks by foreign cultures or enemies," he said, adding that they preferred creating harmony.

Joanes Joko, from the Presidential Staff Office, told the ABC that the president's decisions could be part of a political strategy, but there were also other explanations as to why he announced major decisions on Pon Wednesdays.

"Why the middle of the week? Because normally there are a lot of agendas at the start of the week, especially on Monday and Tuesday, so it's usually easier to schedule in midweek," Mr Joko said.

However, Mr Joko agreed Jokowi's Javanese culture played a role in his decision-making.

"Everyone has religiosity, even for ourselves, we have certain days to reflect and introspect and other days to start a momentum," he said.

"The president probably believes that 'Pon Wednesday', which was his birthday, could be a momentum of a first step towards something he wants to achieve."

Indonesia has had seven presidents since declaring its independence almost 78 years ago, and all but the third president were Javanese. The third president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, was part Javanese and came from Sulawesi province.

Dr Zustiyantoro said he considered Suharto, who ruled for 32 years, as "the most Javanese" of all presidents.

"In his various national speeches or even informal ones, whether he was on-cam, on television or on radio, he often used Javanese terms," Dr Zustiyantoro said.

"He often created terms in Javanese that were incorporated in his ministries, either at national or district levels."

Gatot Nugroho, head of the General Suharto Memorial Museum in Kemusuk, said he believed all Indonesian presidents after Suharto, including Jokowi, followed in Suharto's footsteps in leading the nation.

Mr Nugroho, whose father served as a corporal under Suharto's command during the military offensive in Yogyakarta in 1949, witnessed how Javanese culture was deeply ingrained in Suharto's life

He said since serving in military until he became president, Suharto had compiled many Javanese philosophies that later were turned into a book called Butir-butir Budaya Jawa (Seeds of Javanese Culture) by his daughter.

"The book contains the cultural philosophies of Javanese culture summarised by Suharto, that he either learnt verbally from the kyai – religious teachers – or the kings in Java or all over Nusantara," Mr Nugroho said.

The book also detailed how Suharto strictly adhered to Javanese calendars and rules when it came to deciding the time of inaugurations and projects.

Dr Margana said while Suharto's government was accused of bad practices like nepotism, nepotism was viewed as "a common thing" in Javanese culture.

"Nepotism in Javanese feudal culture was actually not seen as a crime, although it's considered one in the modern economy, democracy and good governance," he said.

"In Javanese culture, nepotism was seen as a form of kinship, friendship and social solidarity."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-26/how-javanese-culture-influences-the-indonesian-president/10262156