National

Top secret: A look at how Japan's new era name, Reiwa, was picked and kept under wraps

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

When Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveiled that Reiwa would be the name of Japan’s next Imperial era on Monday, it was a moment that finally put an end to months of fierce media competition to get the scoop before the official announcement.

The name of a new Imperial era, or gengō, has traditionally been treated as top secret. But in the past, the name would somehow wriggle its way into the hands of scoop-hungry journalists just before the announcement, shaming the officials involved.

So it’s perhaps little surprise this time around that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone to great lengths to prevent this.

Before Monday, when a select pool of private-sector representatives discussed the shortlist for the new names in a private meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, reports had emerged that the government might go so far as to confiscate their cellphones, temporarily jam the radio waves and keep them sequestered long after the meeting wrapped up.

“We’re doing our best to keep the new era name thoroughly confidential,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing Friday, declining to elaborate on the measures taken.

“Given that the new era name is something extremely important that will be deeply rooted in the lives of Japanese, I don’t think it’s appropriate if many of its details are leaked beforehand,” he said.

Indeed, the process of picking the gengo was confidential every step of the way.

As per a long-held guideline, Abe’s team commissioned scholars to come up with ideas in mid-March, Suga said. He didn’t divulge any details, but a senior official in the Cabinet Secretariat earlier told the Upper House budget committee it would include experts on Japanese and Chinese literature as well as history.

The guideline dictates that the chief Cabinet secretary must then narrow down the list submitted by the scholars, checking each name to ensure they are easy to read and write, consist of two kanji, do not overlap with any existing word, and encapsulate an ideal for the times ahead.

The government was also reportedly careful to avoid picking any name with a first initial that overlaps with any of its four immediate predecessors, namely H (Heisei), S (Showa), T (Taisho) and M (Meiji). The four initials are widely used in official documents and computer systems, and using a repeat letter would generate confusion.

On Monday, the shortlist was handed over for scrutiny by a group of private-sector representatives and legislative leaders before the finalist was selected.

Suga said the government won’t disclose the name of a scholar who came up with the name, to prevent “inappropriate” prying.

Breaking through this watertight wall of secrecy is often a priority for political reporters in Japan. Most have been falling over themselves to get the scoop on the gengo because it becomes a topic of significant public interest when an era is about to end.

When the Meiji Era ended in 1912, it was the daily Asahi Shimbun that exposed the next name, Taisho, in a bombshell exclusive that ran a day before its announcement.

A drama unfolded 14 years later when Emperor Taisho died in December 1926. In the morning edition on Dec. 25 that year, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, a precursor to what is today the Mainichi Shimbun, ran a giant exclusive saying the next era would be called Kobun, only to see the government announce hours later that it had in fact decided on Showa.

The “Kobun Incident,” as the mishap came to be known, tarnished the daily’s reputation like never before, at one point even prompting Hikoichi Motoyama, the president, to resign.

To this day, it remains unknown whether the error was simply a result of inadequate reporting or a last-minute government change devised to derail the scoop.

In any case, the debacle put significant pressure on the chief editor of the Mainichi’s political team six decades later, when Emperor Showa’s health had reached a critical point in 1988, to avenge the ignominy caused by the Kobun Incident and “prepare to be fired” if he let his competitors beat him to the punch, according to “Mainichi no Sanseiki” (“Three Centuries of Mainichi”), an official book on the company’s history.

The reporters’ jockeying naturally put government officials on high alert in the closing days of Showa.

When talking to reporters, officials back then even threatened to change the era name at the 11th hour if was leaked to prevent potential scoops, former Mainichi Shimbun politics reporter Tadao Kano recalled in an article he contributed to the Japan National Press Club.

“It was tantamount to them saying, ‘if you dare to scoop the era name, you better remember what the Mainichi Shimbun went through after the Kobun Incident — you’ll either be doomed to resign or demoted.’ That was basically a threat,” Kano wrote.

His strategy, he wrote, was to scoop it at the very last minute — or after a name picked by then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita entered the final process of Cabinet approval.

In the end, the Mainichi’s efforts to redeem itself paid off — sort of.

In Jan. 7, 1989, when Emperor Showa died after a months-long battle with cancer, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter got wind of the new name — Heisei (“achieving peace”) — 30 minutes before then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi unveiled it in a hastily arranged news conference.

The paper, however, balked at publishing an extra edition based on this knowledge, as some executives in the newsroom demanded more thorough fact-checking to avoid a repetition of the Kobun Incident, according to Kano.

Because of this lack of tangible proof, “many newspaper companies like the Yomiuri Shimbun, wire agencies and TV stations still don’t acknowledge we scooped” them, Kano wrote with chagrin.