Japan to unveil name of new era under Naruhito today

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko admiring cherry blossoms at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden last Wednesday. The Emperor will abdicate from the Chrysanthemum throne on April 30, making way for Crown Prince Naruhito to replace him the following
Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko admiring cherry blossoms at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden last Wednesday. The Emperor will abdicate from the Chrysanthemum throne on April 30, making way for Crown Prince Naruhito to replace him the following day, to become Japan's 126th emperor on May 1. Emperor Akihito will be the first Japanese royal to abdicate since 1817.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Country will bid farewell to Heisei era when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30

The end of an era is nigh for Japan, which will bid farewell to the Heisei ("achieving peace") period when its revered Emperor Akihito steps down on April 30 and usher in a new epoch as the clock strikes midnight on May 1.

The country has been set abuzz guessing Japan's 248th gengo, or era name, with shopping malls, retail outlets and even onsen ("hot spring") resorts running campaigns asking customers for their predictions, while social media is also rife with forecasts.

One popular option online has been "Ankyu" ("permanent peace"), but observers believe that a name already in wide circulation will unlikely be chosen.

"I hope it will be an important era where everyone will be able to live with peace of mind," Mrs Hitomi Kinoshita, 39, told the Asahi daily, after submitting her guess "Andai" at an onsen resort in Hirakata city in Osaka. Her husband Yasuhiro, 34, predicted "Taihei". Both guesses comprise words that mean "peace".

But it will be down to a select committee of nine panellists - comprising experts in Japanese literature, Japanese history, Chinese classics and oriental history - to make the decision this morning.

A Cabinet meeting will follow to approve an ordinance for the new name.

To prevent leaks from the top-secret discussions, everyone involved - from the panellists to Cabinet ministers - will have to turn in their mobile phones and smart watches, and will be confined to the Prime Minister's Office until the announcement.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will, at 11.30am local time (10.30am in Singapore), announce the new era name by holding up a piece of paper with the two Chinese characters written in calligraphy - just as how then Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi had done in announcing "Heisei" in 1989.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will follow the nationally televised announcement with a news conference at noon, during which he will convey to the people the reasons behind the new name and his hopes for the new era.

 
 
 

That so much attention is being placed on the new era - to begin when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne to become Japan's 126th emperor on May 1 - shows how this transcends a mere procedural change and can affect the overall mood of the Japanese.

While the Gregorian calendar is widely used in Japan, imperial dates are common both on newspapers and official documents, where people routinely fill out the imperial year. Today is April 1, Heisei 31 (shortened to H31 in many cases) in Japan.

Much like how many in Western countries find meaning in certain periods, which have given birth to terms such as "swinging 60s", people in Japan likewise colloquially identify with the eras (for example, "Heisei children").

More importantly, the era name is also meant to encapsulate a nation's psychological hopes - though this backfired in the Showa ("bright peace and harmony") period that spanned the rise of Japanese nationalism and led Japan to wage wars it then lost.

As per its name, the Heisei era, which Emperor Akihito has said he was heartened will come to an end without Japan having engaged in war, is associated with a period of peace. But it will also be known as an era of economic stagnation following the burst of the economic bubble, and of devastating catastrophes, such as the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

There is no precedent for today's announcement. Emperor Akihito will be the first Japanese royal to abdicate since 1817, after two centuries of the Chrysanthemum throne changing hands only upon the monarch's death.

This gives the government and businesses a rare "transition period" in the first era change in the digital age, as experts warn of a "Japanese Y2K" due to fears of a technological collapse over computers failing to register the new date.

A survey by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry last week showed 20 per cent of companies were uncertain if their computer networks are using the Japanese calendar and are equipped to deal with the change.

To avoid confusion, experts say the new name - which must be easy to read and write and have two characters - will unlikely begin with the letters H, S, T, or M.

This corresponds to the first letter of the preceding four eras in modern Japan: Heisei (1989-2019), Showa (1926-1989), Taisho ("great justice", 1912-1926) and Meiji ("enlightened rule", 1868-1912).



Japan's then Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi unveiling the era name "Heisei" on Jan 7, 1989. The era will end at the end of this month, when Emperor Akihito abdicates. PHOTO: REUTERS

Poll: 'Disaster' best describes Heisei era

TOKYO • The word for disaster, "sai", was picked as the character that best describes the Heisei ("achieving peace") era in a February survey whose results were released last week.

Still, another poll found that over 70 per cent of Japanese felt the Heisei period - which began on Jan 8, 1989, and will end on April 30, when Emperor Akihito, 85, abdicates - was "good" or "relatively good".

But a majority of those with this upbeat view are under 30 years, and did not experience the boom years that preceded the economic stagnation of their youth.

In comparison, only 10 per cent of those aged 60 and above had a positive assessment of Heisei.

In the first survey, conducted by Sumitomo Life Insurance, one in five respondents chose "sai" as Heisei's most representative word.

Inescapable in recent media retrospectives of the Heisei period are major calamities such as the Jan 17, 1995, Kobe earthquake that killed more than 4,500 people, and the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, which killed nearly 20,000 people.

 

There was also a spate of heinous crimes, including the March 20, 1995, sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 and injured more than 6,400; the Akihabara attack in 2008 that killed seven and injured 10; and the rampage at a Sagamihara home for disabled people in 2016 that killed 19 and injured 26.

In second place was the word for change, "hen", which was picked by 7.1 per cent of those surveyed.

The Heisei era saw the proliferation of the Internet and the advent of smartphones, as well as, more recently, pushback against the country's patriarchal hierarchy, with calls for gender equality and work-style reforms.

This was followed by confusion, "ran", and then peace, "hei", which is also used in the current era name.

While Heisei has been seen positively overall in the second poll, conducted by Kyodo News, it likewise found disasters both in Japan and abroad to be the most unforgettable events of the era.

Seven in 10 said the 2011 earthquake was the top domestic news event, while four in 10 said the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States were the top global news story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2019, with the headline 'Japan to unveil name of new era under Naruhito today'. Print Edition | Subscribe