The closely watched announcement by the government that Reiwa will be the name for the new Imperial era beginning May 1 puts the preparation for the abdication of Emperor Akihito and the enthronement of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, in the final stage. It should also serve as an occasion for people to ponder about the significance of the Imperial era name system in today’s Japan.
The name Reiwa is reportedly derived from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry, written in the 7th to the 8th century, unlike the previous Imperial era names, including the outgoing Heisei, which had their origins in Chinese classic literature. In a news conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the name is meant to signify “culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully.”
Since the system was established at the beginning of the Meiji Era that one Imperial era name will be adopted for the reign of each emperor, the name for a new era was unveiled upon the death of each emperor and followed by the enthronement of his successor. It is the first time in the nation’s modern history that a new era name was announced well in advance of the enthronement of the new emperor — given that Emperor Akihito is retiring in the first Imperial abdication in roughly 200 years. The name was unveiled a month ahead of the formal name change to avert any possible inconvenience to public life.
An Imperial era name system dates back to ancient China, where it was crafted based on the idea that an emperor will rule the time. The system expanded to neighboring countries in the cultural sphere that uses kanji characters. But today, Japan, which introduced its first Imperial era Taika back in 645, is the sole country in the world that keeps such a system. In pre-modern Japan, Imperial names were not necessarily fixed to the reign of an emperor but was frequently changed during each emperor’s rule.
Today, the Emperor no longer rules the country — under the postwar Constitution, the Emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” However, the one emperor-one era system launched with the Meiji Restoration continued, and in 1979 legislation was enacted to stipulate that the Cabinet will adopt an Imperial name for the reign of each emperor.
Many Japanese use both the Western calendar and Imperial eras as they see fit in counting the years in their daily lives. At the same time, they often remember major incidents or historic turn of events as being linked to Imperial eras, such as the Meiji Restoration, which ushered in Japan’s modernization from the late 19th century — though this may vary across generations. In a recent Kyodo News survey, nearly 40 percent of the respondents said they would use both the Western calendar and the Imperial era system — while 34 percent preferred to use the Western calendar and 24 percent said they want to use the Imperial era system.
The era name Heisei was adopted following the death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, and the enthronement of his son, Emperor Akihito, in January 1989 — with a hope that peace will be achieved around the world. During the Heisei Era, which will come to an end with the abdication of Emperor Akihito at the end of this month, Japan was hit by a series of big disasters, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as protracted stagnation of the economy — which came to be remembered as the “lost decades” — after the burst of the bubble boom that quickly followed the start of the new era. Internationally, the beginning of the Heisei Era coincided with the closing days of the Cold War and an end to the East-West divide. But the era has also been marked by a rise in international terrorism, as well as tightening competition and conflict over the building of a new international order.
Despite the series of disasters and troubled economic times, nearly three quarters of the respondents in the Kyodo survey are said to view Heisei as a “good era.” As it prepares to usher in the new era, Japan faces a host of challenges that could shake up the future course of the nation, including the rapid decline and aging of its population with ever-fewer births. Many people, including government leaders, express hope that the incoming era will be a good one. But there is nothing in a name that makes that happen. It all depends on what people see and expect of the new era and how they act.