National

Japan's Imperial era names are societal bookmarks for politics, history and culture

by Malcolm Foster

Reuters

In modern Japan, every emperor’s era has its own name — appearing in places such as coins, official paperwork and newspapers — and with a rare abdication coming at the end of April, there was much speculation about what the new gengō would be.

On Monday, authorities announced the new era will be called Reiwa.

The new era name is one of the biggest changes — practically and psychologically — for Japan at the start of Crown Prince Naruhito’s reign on May 1. On April 30, Emperor Akihito will abdicate, ending an era, known as Heisei, in the minds of many Japanese.

City offices and government agencies, which mostly use gengō in their computer systems and paperwork, have been preparing for months to prevent glitches.

To make the public transition easier, authorities announced the new gengō — two Chinese characters that the Cabinet chooses from a short list proposed by scholars — a month in advance on Monday.

“We’ve been working on this change for about a year,” said Tsukasa Shizume, an official in the western Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, where the era name will be changed on 55 kinds of paperwork in 20 administrative sections. The month-long lead time should be sufficient, he said.

Fujitsu and NEC Corp. have been helping customers ensure the switch doesn’t crash their systems. Programs have been designed to make it easy to change the name, said Shunichi Ueda, an NEC official.

“If people want to test their computer systems, they can use a trial gengō and see if it works,” he said.

Most major companies use the Western calendar in their computer systems, so it won’t affect them as much, although smaller companies might run into some problems, he said.

National mood

In Tokyo’s Minato Ward, officials will cross out Heisei on thousands of documents and stamp the new gengō above it.

An era name is more than just a way of counting years for many Japanese.

It’s a word that captures the national mood of a period, similar to the way “the ’60s” evokes particular feelings or images, or how historians refer to Britain’s “Victorian” or “Edwardian” eras, tying the politics and culture of a period to a monarch.

“It’s a way of dividing history,” said Jun Iijima, a 31-year-old lawyer who was born the last year of Showa, the era of Emperor Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known by that gengō. “If you were just counting years, the Western system might be sufficient. But gengō gives a certain meaning to a historical period.”

The 64-year Showa Era, which lasted until 1989, has generally come to be identified with Japan’s recovery and rising global prominence in the decades after World War II.

The Imperial era name is also a form of “soft nationalism,” said Ken Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University.

“It’s one of these constant low-level reminders that Japan counts years differently and Japan has a monarchy,” he said.

The kanji are carefully chosen to have an aspirational meaning. Heisei, which means “achieving peace,” began on Jan. 8, 1989, amid high hopes Japan would play a greater role in global affairs after decades of robust economic growth.

Soon afterward, Japan’s bubble economy imploded, ushering in a long period of stagnation and deflation. The rise of China and South Korea diminished Japan’s international prominence, and a series of disasters — including the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 mega-quake, tsunami and nuclear crises — has marred Heisei’s image.

Fading use

In daily life, usage of the gengō system is slowly declining as Japan integrates with the global economy.

A recent Mainichi Shimbun newspaper survey showed that 34 percent of people said they used mostly gengō, 25 percent mainly the Western calendar, and 34 percent used both about the same. In 1975, 82 percent said they used mostly gengō . Both calendars use Western months.

Japanese driver’s licenses also have started to print both kinds of dates instead of just gengō .

Iijima, the lawyer, says legal paperwork uses the era name because that’s what the court system uses. But in daily life he uses both. For global events, he thinks in terms of the Western calendar — like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and uses both dating systems for domestic events.

He hopes that the new era will again be one without war, that Japan will keep up economically with China and India, and that it will grow into a “mature,” more tolerant place.