Commentary / Japan

What does Reiwa really mean to Japanese?

by Kuni Miyake

Just before noon on April 1, the Abe administration announced that the name for Japan’s next Imperial era would be Reiwa. Everybody in Tokyo have been curious about the new name and the majority seem to be content with it. TV channels aired special programs and major newspapers issued extras on the street.

Honestly speaking, however, I did not pay much attention to our regnal transition this time simply because I was busy that morning preparing Power Point slides for my evening presentation. I was supposed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Canon Institute for Global Studies(CIGS), which was founded on April 1, 2009.

There was another reason why I was not particularly interested. Of course, it was not because the announcement was made on the April Fools’ Day. I felt the excessive media frenzy about the new name rather spoiled the joy and excitement that I might have had without it. As you may easily imagine, I can be a very perverse person.

Of course, I welcome the dawn of the new Reiwa Era. I have full respect for the members of the Imperial family. They always symbolize and embody not only Japan’s national unity and both its traditional and modern values, but also its virtue and goodness. Nonetheless, the following is my take on the new era of Reiwa.

1. Unlike Heisei, the announcement came with more feelings of joy.

Thirty years ago, we welcomed the Heisei Era with great sadness and sorrow. Emperor Showa had just passed away at the age of 87. The entire nation went into mourning and TV stations stopped broadcasting entertainment programs. This time, on the contrary, the Emperor is abdicating the throne and will be succeeded by his son. This must be the first truly joyful Imperial transition since the start of the Meiji Era. Goods, food and services with the name Reiwa are selling well and people seem to be very happy about it.

2. One hundred people can interpret the name Reiwa in 100 different ways.

Following tradition, Reiwa is a combination of two Chinese characters, “rei” and “wa.” According to the Japanese government, the new name means beauty and harmony in English. However, everybody seems to have different views on the regnal issues. Although the prime minister said Reiwa signified a “culture born and nurtured as people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together,” for me, I don’t know what Reiwa exactly means. To me it just sounds so far so good.

3. Interpretation of “Rei” as “order” or “command” sounds amateur.

Having said that, if someone interprets Reiwa as something implying “achieving harmony by giving orders,” the level of his or her knowledge about Chinese characters used in Japan is as good as that of students in elementary schools.

4. China is not always adorable for the Japanese anymore.

Reportedly, Reiwa was inspired by one of the poems by Otomo no Tabito in “Manyoshu,” the oldest extant collection of Japanese classical poetry, which was compiled in the 8th century. I learned the poems at the age of 13. The most striking thing is that Reiwa was not taken from ancient Chinese literature, unlike the Imperial tradition in Japan for centuries. When Heisei started on Jan. 8, 1989, it was only five months before the Tiananmen Square massacre took place in Beijing. Now people in Japan don’t seem to care about China as much as before.

5. The significance of an era shall be revealed at its end.

The name for the new Imperial era in Japan shall not determine the direction of the nation in the new age. No matter what the era names are, people’s lives go on and international conflicts will not end. While hoping Reiwa will be as beautiful and harmonious as the name suggests, it is the role of future historians to paint the colors of a specific era in its entirety. CNN, for example, referred to “Showa nationalism” and reported that “Era names can also become political.” No, what is political is your viewpoint and not the era names.

6. What does Reiwa really mean to the Japanese?

We haven’t even started the new era and it is premature to talk about its true meaning. Having said that, I believe it’s not the government but the people of Japan who ultimately signify the era of Reiwa, not the other way around. Looking back on the history of Japan over the past two centuries, the following is my take on each of the past four Imperial eras.

During the Meiji Era, we were young as a nation and desperately trying to modernize. Catching up with Western powers was the norm of the day and nobody doubted that in Tokyo. It was possible because we were simply a little luckier than other non-Western nations in our neighborhood.

The Taisho Era was short and is hardly remembered now but it was a significant era since there was a nationwide political movement called Taisho Democracy. The Constitution of 1890 and its parliamentary system went in full bloom in the 1910s and ’20s. It was very unfortunate that the democratic period did not last long.

Then came the era of Showa when we saw heaven and hell as a maturing nation. In the first half of the period, like the 21st century China, we were so proud and reckless that we made many misjudgments. What goes up must come down. In the second half, we learned lessons from history and finally rebuilt our nation.

In Heisei we aged and are not young and energetic anymore. The population stopped increasing and the economy started suffering. What we really wanted was to grow old gracefully, not arrogantly, with pride as a mature liberal democracy in Asia.

What do we want in Reiwa? Many people here in Tokyo wish to rejuvenate the nation again, without aggressive or self-righteous ambitions, as part of the free and open world order and as the oldest liberal democracy in East Asia. How can we accomplish that? This is our most important mission in the new Imperial era of Reiwa.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.