National / History

From Meiji to Reiwa: Japan's centenarians offer a window to bygone eras

by Miho Kaneko

Kyodo

Few Japanese born in the Meiji Era will live long enough to see the dawn of the Reiwa Era, which will begin on May 1, but those who do can offer a glimpse at past generations while providing context for the next.

Era names (gengo) have come to represent the generations of those who lived through them, unlocking bygone memories — some painful, some joyful, but all very personal — to those who experienced them.

Jiro Usui, a 108-year-old former physician, was born in 1911, in the 44th year of the Meiji Era, or Meiji 44, in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture.

The Taisho Era began in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank after a fateful collision with an iceberg during her maiden voyage. Two years later saw the outbreak of World War I, when Usui was just a toddler.

“The Taisho were the best years (for me). I could play until my heart was content. But the impact of the war wasn’t very good,” Usui said.

He was 15 when the Showa Era began in 1926.

In 1941, Usui’s younger brother set off to fight the Allies in the Pacific War and after he was killed the family only received a wooden box containing stones, as was the case with many Imperial Japanese soldiers who died in the war.

During Japan’s economic boom from the postwar period to the 1970s, Usui worked as the director of a health care center and opened an internal medicine clinic after retirement.

He was 78 when the Heisei Era began in 1989, and worked as a physician until the age of 105 treating patients in his region.

“The best thing (about the new era) will be everyone in the next generations enjoying life,” Usui said.

Although still haunted by memories of the war, he believes the choice of Reiwa as an era name, including the Chinese character wa for peace, is a sign of good things to come.

“It’s about protecting the peace, isn’t it?” he posited.

Motome Hirata, who lives in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, was born on a farm in Ueda, Nagano Prefecture, in 1906, or Meiji 39. It was the same year that celebrated author Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan” was first published.

Hirata, now 112, always had her head in a book as a little girl. She married into a family of silkworm breeders right when raw silk prices collapsed during the Great Depression. Struggling to make ends meet while raising four boys and two girls, she regularly worked from dawn to dusk.

She would find respite from work by reading the Japanese classical poetry known as tanka.

During WWII, a local women’s association to which she belonged prepared paper lanterns for use in morale-boosting parades. But the bad times outweighed the good. Sometimes she witnessed unbearable sorrow, such as when a neighboring soldier’s entire family committed suicide, even killing their child, after the war concluded in 1945.

“It was particularly sad because there was a baby (in the family),” said Hirata.

Although Showa was a period of intense work, Hirata said her life changed for the better during Heisei. She started participating in tanka readings and developed a passion for drawing, among other hobbies.

She moved from Nagano to Chiba, where she currently lives in an apartment with her daughter, who is 74.

Asked about Reiwa, the first Imperial era name to be chosen from a traditional work of Japanese poetry, Hirata said it was wonderful and that she was aware it was derived from the “Manyoshu,” given her background in poetry.

Expressing hope for new generations and the era starting May 1 with the ascension of Emperor Akihito’s son, Crown Prince Naruhito, Hirata said, “I want the world to become a better place.”

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