New Emperor, new era: These are the rules in Japan. In May the “Heisei” age comes to an end. And with the change of government, the “Reiwa” era under Emperor Naruhito begins.
When Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito takes office next month, he will usher in the beginning of the “Reiwa” era (Reiwa, written in Japanese as 令和). The Japanese government announced this name on Monday in Tokyo, which stands for “order” and “peace” or “harmony”. Choosing a name for a new era is a centuries-old tradition. But it also has far-reaching consequences for the everyday life of the Japanese in the present day.
Heisei (平成) literally means “become peace,” and the era began in 1989 when the current Emperor took to the throne. Thus, the year Heisei 1 is 1989, Heisei 2 is 1990, and Heisei 3 1991 and so on. The era prior was called Showa, and dates from 1926–1989. Showa (昭和) literally means “shinning Japan.”
Emperor Akihito will abdicate on 30th April after three decades – the first Tenno in more than two centuries. On May 1st, his son Naruhito will ascend to the chrysanthemum throne, marking the beginning of the new era in Japan. Japan is the only country in the world that still uses an imperial calendar. While the year 2019 is being written elsewhere, Japan still has Heisei 30 – the 30th year of the era of Emperor Akihito.
Era names have strict regulations in Japan. They must be easy to read and write, they must not contain brand names or popular proper names, nor should they contain the initials of the previous four eras. In addition, the name of an era traditionally consists of only two characters. In the term “Rei” meanings such as “order” and “auspicious” resonate, “Wa” is usually translated as “peace” or “harmony”. As such, the meaning of Reiwa could be interpreted as “Orderly Peace” or “Orderly Harmony,” or, in a larger sense, “an orderly, peaceful Japan.”
While all previous era names, such as the current Heisei, have often been based on auspicious phrases from Chinese literature, Reiwa is the first to come from a Japanese source, and is taken from a poem about plum blossoms in the Manyoshu.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the term “Reiwa” goes back to the Manyoshu, a collection of Japanese poetry that is around 1,200 years old. The name of the new era was chosen under strict secrecy. A panel of nine members, including a Nobel laureate, was included in one of the Prime Minister’s offices for his deliberations. Neither of them was allowed to take a phone in, and it was also ensured that the room was not bugged.
The beginning of a new era is always an important day in Japan. There are celebrations in public places, calligraphy demonstrations and special editions of daily newspapers.
Since the introduction of the imperial era in the 7th century, there have been nearly 250 “gengo” as they are called in Japanese. In the old days, even in the midst of their reign, emperors called out a new era, for example, to mark a new start after natural disasters. More recently, however, an era has always included the entire rule of an emperor.