Japan will usher in a new era, Reiwa, when Crown Prince Akihito ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1 — a day after Emperor Akihito abdicates.

Gengō, the Japanese term for era names, aren’t merely used to identify the reign of an emperor. They are symbols of sorts that reflect the zeitgeist of the nation and indicate the path the country as a whole aspires to.

The era under Emperor Akihito’s reign, Heisei, was named with hopes to achieve peace following the tumultuous Showa Era, which saw Japan’s descent into World War II and subsequent recovery. Reiwa, in the words of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was named with a desire for the people to be hopeful and to cultivate a new future, as well as pass down the country’s rich history, culture and natural beauty to the next generation.

Let’s take a closer look at Japan’s unique way of identifying a year:

How do gengō work?

The practice originated in ancient China, but historians say Japan is the only country that still adheres to it, as opposed to the internationally used Gregorian, or Western, calendar.

To begin with, Gengō do not start at zero. 1989, for example, is called Heisei 1 instead of Heisei 0. 2019 thus corresponds to Heisei 31.

It is also possible to see multiple gengō in the same year. This happened at the beginning of Heisei and will happen again this year. At the beginning of 1989, Emperor Hirohito, who represented the Showa Era (1926-1989), died on Jan. 7. So the first seven days of 1989 are recognized as Showa 64 and the remainder as Heisei 1.

Each gengō is said to represent an ideal and should in principle consist of two auspicious kanji. Examples include hei (peace), ei (eternal), ten (heaven) and an (safety).

The first era, which was named Taika and whose provenance is unknown, began in 645, paving the way for 247 more. Reiwa will be No. 248.

The use of era names remains pervasive in modern Japan, taking precedence over the Gregorian calendar in official identification and other documents ranging from driver’s licenses to health insurance cards and bank books. To many Japanese, gengō are a proud part of their identity, with phrases such as “Heisei umare” (“born in Heisei”) frequently used by youth to emphasize the era they were born in.

How did the system become what it is today?

Before and during World War II, Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) had ultimate responsibility for selecting the name of his era upon accession as per the old version of the Imperial House Law.

But Japan’s surrender resulted in a major rewrite of the law under the Allied Occupation, with no mention left of the era system.

Deprived of legal status, the tradition faced the danger of extinction, sparking mixed reactions.

The Science Council of Japan, for one, petitioned the government to abolish the system in 1950, labeling it impractical because it makes Japanese historical events hard to keep track of in a global context.

In the meantime, calls for its enshrinement into law gathered traction, achieving new legal status in the 1970s, according to historian Isao Tokoro, a professor emeritus of Kyoto Sangyo University.

In 1979, after an opinion poll a few years earlier by the Cabinet Office found 87.5 percent of the public used gengō in their daily lives, the Diet passed a law officially authorizing the Cabinet to designate eras.

When does the name of an era change?

The 1979 Era Name Law stipulates an era name can only be updated in tandem with a change on the Imperial throne. This is a holdover from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan — in what became a turning point in the centuries-old gengō system — adopted the “one reign, one era name” principle to emulate China, meaning only one name could be applied to the reign of each emperor.

This has contributed to the relative longevity of recent eras, including Meiji, which lasted 45 years, and Showa, the longest ever at 64 years.

But before the “one reign, one era name” system took hold, Japan had witnessed frequent name changes regardless of whoever was taking the throne. The changes often occurred in the wake of calamities such as earthquakes, conflagrations, famines and epidemics, in hopes of putting them behind. As a result, some eras spanned only a few years.

How is an era name determined?

With the 1979 enactment of the Era Name Law, the power to name an era shifted from the emperor to the Cabinet.

This, according to Tokoro, left the government scrambling to commission outside experts to come up with names behind closed doors so it could whittle the list down before the death of Emperor Hirohito.

This was done in accordance with a government policy stipulating era names must fulfill certain conditions, including that they can be read and written easily and must not overlap with an existing Japanese word.

When Emperor Hirohito died at 87 on Jan. 7, 1989, the government wasted no time submitting the shortlist of candidate names for scrutiny by private experts and the heads of the two chambers of the Diet.

Within hours of Emperor Hirohito’s death, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi held an emergency news conference to publicly announce the start of Heisei, meaning “achieving peace,” effective the following day.

The following is an updated version of a story that originally ran on July 25, 2016

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