What's in a name? Japan debates meaning of new Reiwa imperial era

Women taking their commemorative photos of the printed T-shirts with the new era name "Reiwa" distributed for free at an event in Tokyo on April 1, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese printers rushed to make calendars emblazoned with the new imperial era name on Tuesday (April 2) as the public tried to make sense of the meaning of "Reiwa" a day after its unveiling gripped the nation.

The new era begins on May 1 when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father Emperor Akihito abdicates and ends his 31-year Heisei era.

The name, or "gengo", is a part of daily life, used on coins, drivers' licences and official paperwork, as well as to count years, although Japanese also use the Western calendar.

But Reiwa's meaning has generated confusion and controversy.

The first character, "rei", is often used to mean "command" or "order", which has an authoritarian nuance that offends some people. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government prefer "good" or "beautiful", a lesser known meaning of the character.

The second character, "wa", is defined as "peace" or "harmony", so together the two characters mean "beautiful harmony", Japan's consulate in New York said, in a bid to clear up any confusion.

"It does not mean 'order and harmony', as has been reported in the press," the consulate said in a statement.

The gengo is chosen by the Cabinet - not the emperor - from a shortlist of names proposed by scholars.

While many Japanese were positive about the new name, to some, particularly younger people, it sounded harsh.

"Do they mean 'give in to orders?' They probably want another militarist era," one Twitter user said.


The mixed response may reflect a generation gap or a decline in knowledge about kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese and in gengo, said Prof Masaharu Mizukami, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Chuo University in Tokyo.

"To those who don't know the 'good' meaning, it can come across as negative," he said.

Still, Prof Mizukami said his initial impression of Reiwa wasn't very positive because of the forceful nuance of "rei".

In fact, "rei" was rejected in the 1860s, towards the end of the Tokugawa shogun's rule over Japan, because the "command" meaning implied the emperor had power over the military rulers, Prof Mizukami said.

Mr Abe added to the confusion with a convoluted explanation of Reiwa's meaning on Monday, saying it meant "a culture nurtured by people bringing their hearts together in a beautiful manner". By comparison, today's Heisei era means "achieving peace".

Mr Abe stressed that for the first time, the name's source was a Japanese classic, a 1,300-year-old poem, not a Chinese text as was the case in past era names.

That Japanese origin may have been more important to Mr Abe and other authorities than the meaning of the era name, which appeared to have been "slapped on", said Prof Mizukami.


While Japanese debated Reiwa's meaning, bureaucrats on Tuesday busily updated computer software and documents which almost exclusively use the era name to get ready for May 1.

Printing shops also leapt into action.

Hours after the name was unveiled on Monday, a factory in Yoshiwara, north of Tokyo, began printing new Reiwa calendars.

Sales had dropped off since Emperor Akihito announced his desire to abdicate about two years ago, said Mr Junichi Ishii, manager at the Todan Co factory.

"I'm relieved that the new name was finally announced," he said, raising his voice above the din of printing machines.

Mr Ishii said he was sad the Heisei era was drawing to a close, but he hoped that in the new era, "Japan will be a place where everyone can live peacefully".

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