Japan to usher in Reiwa era

Japan's new imperial era to begin on May 1, when Crown Prince Naruhito becomes emperor, will be called "Reiwa", Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced on Monday (April 1), a month ahead of Emperor Akihito's abdication.
Japan came to a standstill at about 11.30am yesterday as millions across the country waited with bated breath for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to announce the new era name, "Reiwa", meaning "auspicious harmony", at the Prime Minister's offi
Japan came to a standstill at about 11.30am yesterday as millions across the country waited with bated breath for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to announce the new era name, "Reiwa", meaning "auspicious harmony", at the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

'Auspicious harmony' epoch starts on May 1 with Naruhito's reign

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

Reiwa, which can be translated as "auspicious harmony", is the name of the new imperial era that will begin the day Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, succeeds his father Emperor Akihito, 85, as Japan's 126th monarch, it was announced yesterday.

The royal handover will draw 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 kanji characters "rei", whose traditional meaning of "auspicious" is rarely used today and is now used to mean "decree", and "wa", which means "peace" or "harmony". This is the first time "rei" has been used, and the 20th time for "wa".

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

"Our nation is at a major turning point, but there are many Japanese values that should not fade away."

He later added in an interview with public broadcaster NHK: "Plum trees have to endure a tough and cold winter to blossom, and all of us are individuals who can make our own dreams come true. I want to see that happen in the new era."

  • Plum blossoms' sweet scent of hope

  • TOKYO • The sakura cherry blossoms, now in full bloom across Japan, are often associated with spring.

    But it is the sweet scent of ume plum flowers that, in traditional folklore, symbolises hope and vitality, and heralds the dawn of the season.

    Modern Japan ascribes much meaning to the seasons - April also marks a new beginning for both the school and fiscal years - and it is as such befitting that the name of its 248th era, unveiled yesterday, references an eighth-century poem that describes the bewitching scent of plum flowers.

    The imperial calendar will be reset to Reiwa 1 on May 1, the day Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, takes over from his father Emperor Akihito, 85.

    Reiwa can be translated to mean "auspicious harmony". The term was inspired by a passage in the poetry anthology Manyoshu (Collection Of Ten Thousand Leaves). 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."

    The name was decided by a select committee of nine panellists, who included representatives from the literature, media, business and science circles.

    Kyoto University scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his discovery that adult cells can be transformed back into embryo-like cells, was a member.

    "The name perfectly sums up the future of Japan as one that values tradition and takes on new challenges," he said.

    Walter Sim

Reiwa has drawn bipartisan approval. Millennials born in the Heisei era who were worried about the change in era and having to get used to the new name, like corporate sales executive Takayuki Aida, 29, told The Straits Times Reiwa not only has a nice ring to it, but also conveys hope and optimism.

Japan came to a standstill at about 11.30am yesterday as millions across the country waited with bated breath for the announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Most offices paused work briefly while many people gathered in front of giant billboard screens at hubs from Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo to Dotonbori in Osaka, taking selfies to mark the moment when Mr Suga held up a framed placard with the new era name.

While the use of the Gregorian calendar is widespread in Japan, the gengo is also used in newspapers and official documents, where the year follows the imperial era.

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

The gengo was first adopted by Emperor Kotoku in 645, and has been used continuously since 701.

Reiwa was chosen from six options, three from Japanese literature and three from Chinese classics.

Dr Shigeji Ogura of the National Museum of Japanese History told The Straits Times that the choice put paid to existing criticism that the gengo is being derived from Chinese literature despite Japan's rich cultural history, even if its kanji characters are from China.

Mr Takeshi Nakahara, 48, who runs a start-up consultancy in Fukuoka, said that he agreed with Mr Abe's vision for the future and reasoning for the era name.

"Japan is entering a new era with its population rapidly ageing, and a bright future can only be secured if its people have their own ideas, individuality and strengths.

"To do so, they need to eschew the traditional dependency on the established system in favour of pursuing their own independence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Japan to usher in Reiwa era'. Print Edition | Subscribe