What’s in a name? What’s in an era? What is an “era”? What’s a “new era”? Are we entering one?
To take the last question first: Not really, said 57 percent of respondents to a survey the Asahi Shimbun conducted in March versus 37 percent for whom May 1, 2019 — Reiwa 1, as we now know — will mark the start of something new.
“Something” — what? There’s no telling. Who could have foretold Heisei’s course as the Showa Era (1926-89) ended? Who in 1989 could have anticipated the worldwide web, virtual reality, the smartphone, the “lost decade” if not “lost generation,” globalization and its backlash, resurgent nationalism, the widening gap between rich and poor, IT, AI (artificial intelligence), mass aging with all its ramifications, and everything else we in Heisei’s twilight accept as normal but which someone brought back to life today, having died in Heisei 1, would find utterly, numbingly incomprehensible, scarcely expressible?
“Era,” in the sense of the word relevant here, is an Asian, not a Western concept. There are many ways of viewing, measuring and recording time. The Jews were the first and, for thousands of years, the only people to see it as most of us do today — a linear progression moving steadily and irresistibly forward, sweeping us along with it, will we or nill we. The Jewish calendar has us in the year 5779, time having begun with the creation of the world. Christians at length adopted the notion, dating their linear calendar from Jesus’ supposed birth date. Muslims date theirs from the Hijri, the migration Muhammad led in AD 622 from Mecca to Medina. By the Islamic calendar, this is the year 1440.
The Japanese, since the seventh century, have lived in “eras.” China, Japan’s first teacher in the arts of civilization, placed time in the hands of the Emperor. He was the master of time no less than of space. The astronomy and astrology behind the Imperial calendar were esoteric arts — state secrets, as we would say today. Each new emperor devised a new calendar and instituted a new era. Japan’s first era was fittingly named Taika — “Great Reform.” The revolution that Sinicized primitive Japan deserved a ringing name, and Taika was it. The Taika era lasted from 645 to 650 — brief by modern standards but average over the centuries. Reiwa will be Japan’s 248th era.
Many eras down the ages began with a new reign; not all, however. Sometimes astrological omens would suggest to their official sage-interpreters the need for a change; sometimes a natural or unnatural disaster would. A fire in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and an earthquake in Kyoto were warnings that the Bunsei era (1818-1830) had exhausted its cosmic capital; the Tenpo era (1830-44) that succeeded it was itself undone by fire in Edo; it yielded to the Koka era (1844-48). The Genji era (1864-65) was cut short by an aborted uprising of ultranationalists enraged by the shogun’s abject failure to protect the “land of the gods” from godless foreigners. The Keio era (1865-68) replaced it, only to be replaced in turn by Meiji (1868-1912) — a “new era” in every sense of the word.
Heisei lost its innocence in 1995. Its beginnings had been bubbly enough. The economic bubble of the late Showa Era had yet to burst, although it soon would; the population was still young, though aging fast. The Great Hanshin Earthquake of Jan. 17 that year would probably have ended an earlier era; Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack two months later almost certainly would have. The Heisei Era lurched on, but in a different spirit — tense, somber, dark and darkening. Its taint remains. May the new era bring fresh air and new light.
The following story, reported by Shukan Josei magazine in March, is offered here as being somehow characteristic of the Heisei Era we’re leaving behind. It is a sad story — tense, somber and dark; not calamitous like earthquake or terror, but tragic in its own way, if we admit that tragedy can sing in a minor key. There is something almost Dickensian about it.
It concerns one Ryo Kitaura. He’s 44 and single, lives with his mother and kept a candy store. By profession he’s a computer programmer — the store was a sideline — but the children in his Ibaraki Prefecture neighborhood knew him as the candy man; also the cosplay man, for costume play is a hobby of his, or was, and his little store was stocked with costumes as well as confections.
He was very popular with the kids. They loved him and he loved them. They’d drop in on their way to and from school. He was a kind of uncle to them. They’d tell him their troubles and be grateful for his sympathy and advice.
One day last August, three sixth-grade girls came in. It was summer vacation. The costumes intrigued them. “Can we try them on?” “Why not?” said the man. Helping one of the girls on with hers, he seems to have touched her breast. If he did, he insists, it was an accident. Be that as it may, suddenly the children came no longer. The girls stayed away. The boys catcalled. The business collapsed. In October, he shut it down. Three days later the police came. He was under arrest.
Japan’s “hostage justice” is now familiar worldwide thanks to the celebrity of former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, its most famous victim. It permits the indefinite detention of suspects under investigation, regardless of supposed presumption of innocence prior to conviction. Kitaura, reports Shukan Josei, languished in prison for 55 days. The investigation dragged on, petered out. Prosecutors found nothing to charge him with. They freed him. Case closed.
Well, not quite. Officially, Kitaura’s innocent. In his neighborhood he’s a marked man. The kids “know” him — in their own playfully cruel manner — as a “pervert.” They know his mother, too, or at least whose mother she is, and she too is too mortified to show her face outside. Her rose garden goes untended.
There are no plans to reopen the candy store. Kitaura wouldn’t do it even if the kids could be won over. “I don’t want anything more to do with children,” he says, like a man who’s learned life’s bitterest lesson the hard way.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.