The View From Asia

Reiwa: A new era in Japan and what it means

How much of a change does Reiwa signify? Asia News Network writers in Tokyo and Beijing look closer at the two characters that bear similar meanings in both Japanese and Chinese. Here are excerpts.

The changes that reflect a new era

Editorial
The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan

The government has decided to make "Reiwa" the new era name, to be used from May 1 when the Crown Prince assumes the throne, replacing the current era name of Heisei.

Reiwa was derived from a poem in Manyoshu, Japan's oldest poetry collection. The poem states, "Shoshun no Reigetsu nishite Ki Yoku Kaze Yawaragi (In an auspicious month in early spring, the weather is nice and the wind is gentle)."

This is the first time that an era name has been sourced from classical Japanese literature. Manyoshu was compiled about 1,200 years ago and features poems composed by people from a wide range of social classes, from emperors to farmers.

Before World War II, each new emperor ultimately chose his era name based on an ordinance stipulating the procedures of Imperial succession ceremonies. The post-war Constitution stipulates that an emperor shall not have powers related to government.

The Era Name Law enacted in 1979 stipulates that "era names are established by government ordinance". Reiwa will be the second era name, following Heisei, chosen under the sovereignty of the people. It is the first case in which an era name has been established prior to the enthronement of a new emperor.

In deciding on Reiwa, the government basically used the procedures for choosing Heisei, while increasing the number of women on the expert panel from which the government heard opinions on the day of picking Reiwa. The panel also included Nobel laureate and Kyoto University professor Shinya Yamanaka.

A display in Tokyo with Japan's new era name, Reiwa, to be used from May 1 when the Crown Prince assumes the throne. Reiwa will be the second era name, following Heisei, chosen under the sovereignty of the people. The name was derived from a poem in
A display in Tokyo with Japan's new era name, Reiwa, to be used from May 1 when the Crown Prince assumes the throne. Reiwa will be the second era name, following Heisei, chosen under the sovereignty of the people. The name was derived from a poem in Manyoshu, Japan's oldest poetry collection, and it is the first time that an era name has been sourced from classical Japanese literature. PHOTO: DPA

Era names in the cultural sphere of kanji, or Chinese characters, are said to have originated during the Former Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC, and to have spread to Japan, the Korean peninsula, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Today the use of era names continues only in Japan, where the era year and the year on the Western calendar are both used.

Era names have created a common consciousness of the times among Japanese people. Since the Meiji era, each emperor's reign has had a single name, and there is a history of public sentiment being significantly renewed in line with the change of the name.

The enthronement of the new emperor and the implementation of the new era name will undoubtedly have a certain impact on the mindset of the people.

Advances in globalisation and increasing use of the Western calendar notwithstanding, ways should be explored for the era name, which is a tradition of Japan, to be utilised on various occasions.

 
 
 
 

he details of the rituals for the abdication of the Emperor on April 30 and those for the Crown Prince's enthronement on May 1 have been decided. Following the rituals for abdication, the sacred objects of a comma-shaped jewel and a sword that validate the throne will be temporarily returned to their original storage place and then brought to the rituals for enthronement slated for the following day.

It is appropriate to avoid having the rituals perceived as the Emperor transferring his throne to the Crown Prince through his own will. The rituals and ceremonies that accompany the change of emperor will continue into next year. Preparations should be made thoroughly.


Break with tradition but no real change

Editorial
China Daily, China

It remains a name comprising two Chinese characters conveying auspicious meanings. And it sustains the perpetual hope for blessings.

Despite the absence of a precise, official English translation, Reiwa, the name the Japanese government has given to the next imperial era beginning May 1, is as traditional as it could be. Except that it was chosen by the Shinzo Abe Cabinet from a poem in the Japanese literary classic Manyoshu, which was compiled some time after 759.

That the naming process has been reported as breaking the 1,300-year tradition of choosing characters from ancient Chinese literary classics has prompted alarmist calls for "vigilance" against what some see as Mr Abe's "de-Sinicising" of Japanese culture.

Yet, as some scholars in this country have pointed out, the two characters appear in almost identical sentences in a piece by Chinese writer Zhang Heng, almost 700 years before the Japanese poem the characters are taken from.

Given their leanings, it is not worth making a fuss over Mr Abe and his colleagues wanting to highlight a more Japanese identity, although some Chinese may feel slighted that the tradition of naming a new imperial era by drawing inspiration from Chinese literature has been broken. If it was indeed intended as a de-Sinicising move, then that goal is far from being realised, as Japan would have to find a way to banish Chinese characters altogether to accomplish it. After all, despite their "Japanese" origin, the two characters are still Chinese, not only in form, but in connotations.

The truth is, the Chinese and Japanese cultures have become so profoundly interwoven with each other through the course of history that it is nearly meaningless, if not impossible, to draw a clear line between them in every area.

There may be various considerations behind such a name. But what matters in the two countries' relations always boils down to what they actually do.

It would be wrong to read too much into the break with tradition in the naming of the new era and view it as a change of approach by the Abe administration.

Mr Abe's desire to rid Japan of the post-war system so the country can assume the mantle of a major power - a process that has been accelerated by the incumbent US administration being less accommodating of Japan's concerns than its predecessor - has resulted in him seeking to improve relations with China, and he has worked hard to reach a consensus with China on win-win economic and trade cooperation.

Although finding a name for the coming imperial era from his own country's historical literature is very much in line with Mr Abe's feelings about China, he is not going to throw that consensus away now. Indeed, the characters chosen for the new imperial era imply auspicious harmony, and that is certainly something worth giving attention to.


 • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news organisations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2019, with the headline 'Reiwa: A new era in Japan and what it means'. Print Edition | Subscribe