National

Japan assures world that Reiwa is all about 'beautiful harmony' and has nothing to do with 'command'

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The Foreign Ministry confirmed Wednesday the name for Japan’s forthcoming new Imperial era, Reiwa, means “beautiful harmony” in English.

Within days of the announcement of the new gengō, as such eras are known, the ministry has presented an English translation for the new name.

The move is intended to dispel what the ministry considers erroneous reports overseas that the new era name has connotations of “command” or “order” — one of the most common meanings of the kanji for rei that forms the first half of Reiwa.

“Having seen talk overseas that the new gengō means ‘order’ or ‘command,’ we felt the need to let the world know that nobody (in the government) thinks like that,” Hiroatsu Satake, a foreign ministry official, told The Japan Times.

“If you look up that individual kanji in dictionaries, I believe a meaning like this does show up, but it has multiple other meanings too. We felt we should at least make it clear this particular one is not the intended meaning here,” Satake said.

The foreign ministry’s attempt to dissociate Reiwa from the authoritative nuance of command or law chiefly associated with rei, which is used in terms such as meirei (command) or hōrei (law), may have been clear enough from its issuance of the translation “beautiful harmony.”

But that rendition of Reiwa fails to reflect the original context in which the kanji rei was used in “Manyoshu” — the nation’s oldest existing anthology of poetry, from which the new gengō was drawn.

Reiwa was inspired by a portion of a passage written by prominent poet Otomo no Tabito, who used rei to render reigetsu, an “auspicious month,” as he detailed the soft manner of an early spring breeze.

While acknowledging that the ministry’s translation fails to capture the connotation of “auspicious,” Satake said the ministry placed a greater emphasis on accurately conveying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s expectations for a new era than staying faithful to the original meaning of rei as was used by the poet in “Manyoshu.”

“We came up with ‘beautiful harmony’ based on a statement read out by the Prime Minister (soon after the gengō announcement), thinking about the kinds of expectations he had for these two kanji characters,” he said.

In an address to the nation on Monday, Abe said Reiwa suggests a “culture born and nurtured as people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.”

It was “impossible,” the foreign ministry official said, to translate Reiwa verbatim, it being an inventive combination of two kanji characters that has never before entered the Japanese lexicon and has left even native Japanese speakers scratching their heads as they try to parse and interpret it.

Satake added that “beautiful harmony,” although promoted by the foreign ministry, is afforded no legally binding power and therefore should be considered just one of the possible ways to interpret Reiwa in English. He preferred to call it an English “explanation” or “interpretation” by the government of Reiwa, instead of the “official translation.”

That view was echoed by Masao Yamamoto, a Cabinet Office official.

Under the Era Name Law, the only details about gengō that can be specified by a government ordinance are the way it is written in kanji and its kana reading. Other secondary details, such as its intonation and English translation, have no legal backing, he said.

“Therefore, it’s not like we’re saying ‘beautiful harmony’ is the only acceptable translation” of the new era name.

Indeed, when asked to confirm Reiwa’s English translation as “beautiful harmony,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga didn’t seem aware of it — saying it was his “first time” to hear about it — so could not vouch for the official nature of the translation.

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