Reiwa: Japan's new imperial era under Emperor Naruhito

Japan changed its imperial calendar on May 1st, 2019, with Prince Naruhito’s accession to the throne. For the first time in history, we knew its 元号 gengo (official name) one month in advance: it is 令和 Reiwa Era, the 248th imperial period of Japanese history.

To prevent information from leaking, current Cabinet General Secretary Yoshihide Suga revealed this name in a press conference from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office. This was directly at the end of the committee’s deliberations on this delicate choice, on April 1st, 2019 (the beginning of the fiscal year in Japan).

Since March 14, 2019, a selection of intellectual, literature and Oriental history specialists studied a list of about 30 possible names. Then, the Japanese Cabinet retained five names, which were examined by a governmental commission before the final election. The four other finalists were revealed on NHK TV: 英弘 Eikô, 久化 Kyûka, 広至 Kôshi, 万和 Banna and 万保 Banpô.

While the circumstances were exceptional, choosing the title respected the traditional procedure dictated by the 1979 Era Name Act, which had already been used for the previous era change from the Showa to the Heisei era in 1989. Therefore, the Reiwa era is characterized by:

  • a collective decision taken by groups with political power: specifically, the government and parliamentary chambers of the Japanese Diet (but not by the imperial family, which must remain neutral);
  • the first era to begin with an R in the modern period;
  • a writing in two kanji characters (令和), which is easy to read and write for the most people possible; and
  • a meaning agreeing with the epoch and national aspirations.

These two last points have been debated since the announcement of the new imperial era’s name, especially about its meaning in kanji. Indeed, the choice of characters is never innocuous in Japanese, as several meanings can be drawn from one written expression. It is up to each person to have his or her own opinion about it.

Two readings are possible for rei and wa

For the first time in Japanese history, the chosen ideograms are taken from Japanese rather than Chinese literature. The expression "reiwa" comes from a short waka poem about plum (ume) tree blossoms from the nation’s oldest existing anthology of poetry called Manyoshu (dating from the 8th century).

To justify the name Reiwa, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained in a press conference on April 1st in Tokyo:

"Spring comes after a severe winter; with this selection of a new era name, I renew my commitment to pioneer a new era that will be filled with hope."

If we stick to the official speech by Shinzo Abe, "Reiwa" is a marriage between:

  • 令 rei for "good fortune" and "auspicious"
  • 和 wa for "peace" or "harmony".

Therefore, this era would logically follow the steps of its elder Heisei, translated as "Achieving Peace." In an interconnected world, the Japanese nation continues to live its traditions and share them in general and accepted benevolence—in "good harmony." This explanation, as noble and hopeful it is, might only be its politically correct version. Indeed, some translators and observers from Western countries see in it a much more sovereign meaning.

The first ideogram (令) brings the most questions. In one of its daily uses, it can mean "order," "command," "rule," "law" or "mandate". We can get closer to a lexical universe linked to authority and order connotations. The second kanji character (和) happens to be the one for "peace" and/or "harmony." It is also used to characterize all that is linked to Japan—for example, 和食 washoku can be translated as "Japanese food." In this way, Reiwa can be understood as an "ordered harmony" or a "pacifist and orderly Japan." This latter transcription reveals some of the government’s nationalist trends and therefore leaves a less ideal vision of this new era. Shinzo Abe himself explained that

"the name is meant to reflect the spiritual unity of the Japanese people."

Elsewhere and on the Internet, the domain name reiwa.com, belonging to Western Australia’s Real Estate Institute, saw its visibility explode on social media within several minutes following Yoshihide Suga’s declaration. In a news article, the institute declared having up to 70% of its traffic come from Japan on just April 1, confusing Japanese people’s minds!

As soon as the name was revealed, Japanese companies dove into potentially massive marketing strategies. It is possible to find numerous sorts of objects, games and food in Japan with "令和 "Reiwa written on them.

Impact on the Japanese calendar

In daily life, Japanese people use two calendars to define a date: days and months follow the Gregorian calendar, while the year can also be defined on a national count based of the successive reigns of emperors.

For example, the year 2018 corresponds to year 30 of the Heisei era, and it is commonly named in these two manners. Numerous public administrations use imperial eras for formal and official papers. This is the same for the Japan Rail Pass, for example. Each citizen knows his or her birthday year in the two systems. The Japanese system directly shows how it is anchored in a traditional atmosphere.

2019 divided on two eras, it is now defined as:

  • January to April 平成31年 Heisei 31 (last year of Akihito’s reign)
  • May to December 令和1年 Reiwa 1 (first year of Naruhito’s reign)

Just like the 2000 Internet bug was announced when we changed century, high-tech systems in Japan were readied for the change of date. This was also one of the reasons evoked by Shinzo Abe to justify revealing the name in advance. For a smooth transition and without computers breaking down, Japanese people had one month to become accustomed to this change of era, which was totally new and anticipated from the beginning to the end.

Emperor Naruhito’s coronation

While abdication ceremonies for Emperor Akihito started as early as mid-March, those regarding the prince’s coronation started on May 1, 2019, with two solemn events restricted from the public. During the first protocol, called "Kenji to Shokei no Gi", Naruhito inherited three sacred signs from the Imperial Treasure of Japan (a sword, a bronze mirror and a magatama luck charm). Then, he presented himself to the political power’s chiefs during a ceremony called "Sokuigo Choken no Gi."

The Imperial Agency announced on March 4th that a public appearance of the newly crowned emperor and empress was planned at the balcony of the Tokyo Imperial Palace on May 4 and during the 10-day vacation of the exceptionally long Golden Week this year. This was indeed the case; the couple appeared six times at the balcony of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. New Japanese Emperor Naruhito delivered his first public address, in which he called for world peace.

Otherwise, we must wait until October 22, 2019, to attend a public enthronement ceremony at the biggest scale: a parade throughout the whole city is reportedly being organized, and the couple will be adorned with their most beautiful traditional assets.

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Photo gallery

  • Yoshihide Suga Announces Reiwa Era and displays Japanese Kanji characters in Tokyo on April 01, 2019 © KYODO
  • Commission for the attribution of the new imperial name under Naruhito © KYODO
  • Photo montage of Emperors Akihito and Naruhito © KYODO

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