Commentary / Japan

Heisei Era: Slow decline or hope for new collaboration?

by Yoko Ishikura

The Heisei Era, which began in 1989, is about to end with the abdication of Emperor Akihito at the end of April, and prior to that the name of a new era under the reign of the new Emperor is to be announced on April 1. Speculation has been flying over potential names as the day of the announcement comes near. People age 40 or older may recall the scene when then Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi unveiled the name at a news conference more than 30 years ago. “Heisei” was explained as signifying Japan’s will to achieve peace throughout the world.

Discussions on the use of Imperial era names on public documents — whether we should use both the Western calender year (such as 2019) and the Japanese calender year (such as Heisei 31) — have been underway for some time since some people find it rather confusing.

I personally think it is much simpler to only use the Western calendar year. The task of converting the systems is quite complicated, especially when more than one Japanese era is involved — like the transition from Showa to Heisei, and to the new era. The trend appears to be toward using the Western calendar year. The My Number card now uses only the Western calendar only and driver’s licenses will use only the Western calendar year from 2020.

There seems to be a clear difference by age groups on the daily use of Japanese era names. A Sankei Shimbun survey shows that the younger generation tends to use the Western calendar more than the Japanese calendar (nearly 60 percent), whereas the result was the opposite among the older generation (age 60 and above).

Recently I encountered a young university student who commented on my tweet. He asked whether I still teach at the university where he is now enrolled. I replied that I left the university in 2000, and that he might not have been born when I was teaching there. It turned out that he was 3 or 4 years old when I left. This exchange reminded me of the different eras we have lived, even though we now communicate on social media. It also led me to realize that the three decades of Heisei saw many unprecedented changes, and that there may be considerable differences in how people in different age groups perceive the era.

Many media articles have been written on how people reflect on and describe the Heisei Era. A series of reports published in the Mainichi Shimbun in January said the topics that many people associate with the era include “explosive availability of information technology” and “natural disasters.” According to an Asahi Shimbun survey in the spring of 2018, the largest group of respondents (52 percent) described Heisei as the “era of turmoil,” followed by an “era of decline” (29 percent) — which seems to reflect people’s rather pessimistic impression of the era.

A different picture emerges, however, in an October 2018 survey by Daiwa Securities, which breaks down the perception of the Heisei Era by age groups. The young generation (in their 20s) has a more positive image of Heisei, as close to 60 percent of such respondents say Heisei has been a good era for them. This is in sharp contrast with the result among those in their 40s and 50s, only 20-30 percent of whom gave a positive appraisal of the era. It was a bit of surprise since I had expected that the younger generation may have a neutral or even relatively negative view of the era (which included times when university graduates faced extremely tough employment prospects).

As I think more about the reasons, I suspect that those who have no other experience but the Heisei Era are satisfied with what they see and have today, whereas the older generations remember the days when Japan enjoyed better economic performances as its manufacturing industries led the world and drove the nation to become the world’s second-largest economy.

According to the Daiwa survey, new technology that respondents in all generations expect to become a reality in the post-Heisei Era include robots for housework, flying cars and medical diagnostic capsules. On the other hand, major issues that the respondents said need to be resolved in the post-Heisei era are the aging of the population, climate change, bullying and karoshi (death from overwork), and children’s poverty.

What do these survey results indicate? To me, it shows both opportunities and threats as we embark on the new era. As for threats that cut across generations, I see inertia and little initiative to design a better life and society. For the older generation that reflects on the era of Heisei not as positively as its younger counterpart, my concern is that it may be longing for the good old days with nostalgia — but without taking initiatives to bring the positive aspects of that time back in today’s context. We often hear that these people have little incentive to take action because they will retire before they have to respond to disruptive changes.

For the younger generation that responds positively to the Heisei Era, my fear is that its members may be so comfortable with the status quo that they may not make efforts to grow. Recently I heard IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty say that comfort and growth do not coexist. If you want to grow, you need to be ready to be uncomfortable. Neither simple nostalgia for the good old days or complacency will bring a better society — even if the eras change.

What choices do we have? I can think of two different scenarios. The worst is that both generations stay put and do nothing. It is likely to result in a slow decline of the nation where the older generation stays with power, reaping the remnants of its legacy, and the younger generation feels little sense of urgency and continues life as “business as usual” without trying to take power from the old guard.

The best scenario, on the other hand, will be a new type of inter-generational collaboration to resolve the issues we face. The older generation may recall the entrepreneurial spirit it had that brought about such innovations as the Walkman and describe its current experience of aging (such as gradual loss of physical capability). The younger generation could bring its familiarity with technology, listening to the difficulties the older generation faces, and collaborate in finding solutions for those problems.

If both groups are brave enough to depart from the inertia and complacency by sharing their experiences and expertise, I think we can make the post-Heisei Era a good one for all of us. Inertia and complacency are difficult to break when there is little change and/or when people are not aware of the unprecedented transformation sweeping society. The change of eras may provide a good opportunity to trigger changes in the mentality of all generations. Let us use the beginning of the new era as a chance to think about collaboration, making the most of the differences between generations for the better.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.