National / Politics

Reiwa: Japan reveals name of new era ahead of Emperor's abdication

by Tomohiro Osaki and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

In a much-awaited moment that heralded the approach of a new chapter in Japan’s history, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced Monday that the new Imperial era will be named Reiwa, in one of the final steps toward initiating the nation’s first Imperial succession in three decades.

Holding up a placard that displayed the kanji characters for the new era, Suga said the name was formulated based on the introduction to a set of poems from “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. The first character represents “good fortune,” while the second can be translated as “peace” or “harmony.”

The new era will be the 248th in the history of Japan, which has used the Chinese-style system for indicating the year since 645. In modern times, each era has run the length of an emperor’s reign. This is said to be the first time that the characters chosen were drawn from Japanese classical literature, with prior era names, or gengō, having used kanji from Chinese literature.

The poem from which they are taken describes an ume Japanese apricot flower in full bloom in early spring after surviving a cold winter.

The new era will start on May 1, when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, a day earlier.

The arrival of the Reiwa Era will in turn end the 30-year run of the Heisei (“achieving peace”) Era, which began in Jan. 8, 1989.

Later on Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference that the government chose the kanji characters because they signify “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully.”

He also pointed out that “Manyoshu,” which was compiled more than 1,200 years ago, contained poems by people of various social status, including emperors, noblemen and noblewomen, warriors and ordinary farmers. “I hope the new era name will take root among the public and be widely accepted by the people,” Abe said.

In addressing the nation after Suga’s announcement, Abe said Reiwa reflects his hope that it will “help pass Japan’s long history, noble culture and beautiful, four-season nature down to the next generations.”

“I hope each and every one of the Japanese people can bloom their own magnificent flowers — this is the kind of Japan I had in my mind when I settled on the name Reiwa.”

Citing Reiwa’s connection with the ume flower, Abe referred to “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana (The One and Only Flower in the World),” a smash-hit song sung by boy band SMAP that became one of the best-selling hits of the Heisei Era.

Noting how today’s tech-savvy youth have the potential to “create a new movement” and break through the status quo in society, Abe said, “I hope the next era will see these people from a younger generation fulfill their potential as they move toward realizing their hopes and dreams.”

The naming of a new Imperial era is a significant event here, with such names playing an integral role, both practically and psychologically, in the lives of Japanese people.

With gengō often seen as reflective of the zeitgeist, speculation had been rife about what the new era would be named.

In a nation where gengō have long been cherished as a way of identifying a year — as in Heisei 31, which corresponds to 2019 in the current era — in official documents and computer systems, its change has far-reaching practical implications.

Local municipality officials, computer engineers and calendar manufacturers, for example, have spent months preparing for the various adjustments involved.

On Monday, Reiwa was approved by Abe’s Cabinet after undergoing scrutiny by a group of representatives from the business community, media and education industry, as well as chairpersons of the legislature.

It is the first time that particular kanji for “rei” was chosen for an era name, according to a Japanese official.

The private sector representatives invited to pore over the shortlist included novelist Mariko Hayashi; Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning researcher at Kyoto University who developed iPS cells; Itsuro Terada, former chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Ryoichi Ueda, chairman of public broadcaster NHK.

After the next era name was announced, Yamanaka told reporters he thinks of the new gengō as a combination of the new and old. The first-ever use of the kanji “rei” and the nostalgic touch evoked by “wa” — the same character that was used in Showa — makes the forthcoming gengō “perfectly befitting today’s Japan, which both cherishes tradition and strives to try out new things,” he was quoted as telling reporters.

The Manyoshu passage that inspired Reiwa was written by poet Otomo no Tabito as an introduction to 32 ume-themed poems penned by his poet friends, according to officials. In the introduction, “rei” was used to refer to “reigetsu,” or “auspicious month,” while “wa” described the peaceful manner of an early spring breeze.

Having never been used before, the choice of “rei” came as a surprise for many.

Many Japanese people are not familiar with use of “rei” to mean “good fortune” or “auspicious.” For most, the first phrase that comes to mind is likely to be “meirei,” which literally means an order or command from a supervisor.

Some took to Twitter to express their confusion over what they said was “meirei no rei” or “(‘rei’ as in command)” — causing the keyword to briefly trend over social network services.

Masaharu Mizukami, a professor of Chinese and Japanese literature at Chuo University, said the choice of “rei” makes sense given positive phrases such as “reijō” and “reisoku” — a respectable way of referring to someone’s daughter or son, respectively.

But on the other hand, “rei” has a history of being screened out in the past due to its authoritative implications, Mizukami said.

In the twilight years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the era name Reitoku was once presented as a candidate, only to elicit strenuous opposition from the Tokugawa-led government because the proposed gengō — with “toku” naturally representing the shogunate — could have been read as “commanding Tokugawa,” the professor said.

Meanwhile, according to Asao Kure, an associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University who specializes in legal history and is an expert on Imperial era names, people shouldn’t focus too much on the meanings associated with one kanji that constitutes the gengō.

What is more important is what classical text the gengō draws from, as well as how the two kanji compliment each other, he explained.

“The new era name draws on text about nature, which is unlike the previous era names,” he said.

“Past era names have usually posited specific political principles, but ‘Reiwa’ instead puts forth a new kind of social philosophy inspired by nature — one that aims to achieve harmony among individuals in the same way that harmony and balance is found in natural phenomena,” he explained.

“I do feel that the new gengō is aligned with modern ways of thinking, in that it focuses more on harmonious relationships between individuals to create a diverse society, rather than putting forward a specific principle,” Kure said.

What differentiated the arrival of the latest era from its past four predecessors — Heisei, Showa, Taisho and Meiji — is that the government announced its name while the reigning Emperor is still alive.

In a rare address to the nation in August 2016 Emperor Akihito hinted at his desire to abdicate due to his advanced age, in contrast to his immediate predecessors who reigned until their deaths. His unprecedented address launched preparations for what will be the first abdication by a sitting Japanese monarch in around 200 years.

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