Sign of the times: Japan picks Reiwa to succeed Heisei as new imperial era from May 1

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga holds up the new era name, Reiwa, during a press conference in Tokyo, on April 1, 2019.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga holds up the new era name, Reiwa, during a press conference in Tokyo, on April 1, 2019.PHOTO: AFP
Emperor Akihito (right) is preparing to step down at the end of the month, and will be replaced by Crown Prince Naruhito on May 1, 2019.
Emperor Akihito (right) is preparing to step down at the end of the month, and will be replaced by Crown Prince Naruhito on May 1, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - May 1, 2019, will also be known as May 1, Reiwa 1 in Japan.

The new imperial era Reiwa will begin on the day Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, succeeds his father Emperor Akihito, 85, as Japan’s 126th monarch, drawing the curtains on the Heisei (achieving peace) era that began on Jan 8, 1989. April 30 will be the final day of Heisei 31.

Reiwa is Japan’s 248th gengo, or era name, and comprises the Chinese characters “rei”, whose traditional meaning of “auspicious” is rarely used and is now used to mean “order” or “decree”, and “wa”, which translates to “peace” and “harmony”.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the name, derived from Japanese literature for the very first time after being drawn historically from Chinese classics, emphasises the beauty of traditional Japanese values and culture, and carries the hopes of building a country where both young and old are able to achieve their dreams.

“Our nation is facing a huge turning point, but there are many Japanese values that should not fade away,” he told a nationally-televised news conference. 

“The word Reiwa implies that the people’s hearts are united in coming together in beauty to create and develop culture. I hope the new name will be deeply rooted in everyday lives.”

The country came to a standstill at about 11.30am, when millions across the country tuned in whether at home or at work to the announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Others who were out stopped in their tracks in front of giant billboard-sized screens at hubs like Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo, and Dotonbori in Osaka, while tens of thousands watched a live stream of the announcement online. 

In the epoch-defining moment, Mr Suga held up a white placard bearing the name of the new era written in calligraphy, just as then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi had done when he announced Heisei in 1989.

While the use of the Gregorian calendar is widespread in Japan, the gengo is also used in newspapers and official documents, where people routinely fill in the year by era name.

But it is more than just an esoteric procedural change. The imperial era is often used to bookmark a particular period in time, reflecting the zeitgeist and overall mood of the population.

 
 

The name Reiwa is derived from a passage in the eighth century poetry anthology Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). This is the first time that “Rei” has been used in an era name, and the 20th time the word “Wa” has been tapped.

The passage loosely translates to: “In an auspicious month in early spring; the air is fresh and the breeze is calm; plum blossoms are blooming like a beautiful woman applying powder in front of a mirror; the fragrance of orchids are like that of robes scented with incense.”

Mr Abe, in noting how Manyoshu reflects the change of seasons and was compiled from songs from not only the elite but also lower-level officials and farmers, said: “I want Japan to proudly bloom like plum blossoms, which bloom beautifully after a harsh winter and herald the arrival of spring, so that each and every Japanese person can hope for the future and make their own flowers blossom.”

Japan is the world’s longest continuous monarchy, with a semi-mythical unbroken hereditary lineage that is said to date back to 660BC. 
The gengo system was first adopted by Emperor Kotoku in 645, and has been used continuously since 701. Previously, emperors would sometimes switch era names midway during their reign to mark a fresh start following a period of tumult, whether due to wars or natural disasters, or to mark an auspicious rare occurrence.

But it was only since the Meiji era (“enlightened rule”, 1868-1912) that Japan has adhered to the principle of having one era name per emperor.

There have been three eras since: Taisho (“great justice”, 1912-1926), Showa (“bright peace and harmony”, 1926-1989), and Heisei (1989-2019).

Reiwa was chosen from six options, public broadcaster NHK said, citing a government source.

These were presented before a nine-member panel that included experts in Japanese literature, Japanese history, Chinese classics and Oriental history, as well as representatives from the media and business circles.

Era names must meet six criteria: (i) the meaning reflects an appropriate ideal; (ii) it comprises two kanji characters; (iii) it is easy to read; (iv) it is easy to write; (v) it has never been used before; and (vi) it is not a commonly used turn of phrase.

Dr Shigeji Ogura, a historian from the National Museum of Japanese History, told The Straits Times: “While kanji characters come from China, Japan too has its own rich history of culture and literature. There has been criticism for some time that the gengo is being derived from Chinese classics, and this will counter such arguments.”

He also noted that the idea of a “reset” or a “fresh start” with a new era is still prevalent today.

“We’re coming to the end of the Heisei era faced with various challenges. The change in era will hopefully set the mood for solutions to be taken up to meet these problems.” 

Mr Takeshi Nakahara, 48, who runs a start-up consultancy in Fukuoka, told The Straits Times that he agrees with Mr Abe’s vision for the future and reasoning for the era name, which he said was elegant both in how it sounds and how it is written.

“Japan is entering a new era as it is rapidly ageing, and a bright future will only be secured if it can produce people with their own ideas, individuality and strengths. To do so, people will need to eschew its traditional dependency on the established system in favour of pursuing their own independence.”