When Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30 it will, quite literally, be the end of an era for Japan. Crown Prince Naruhito will formally accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne and the event will be marked by a change of era name, from “Heisei” to “Reiwa”.
An announcement of this at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo was broadcast live on April 1, bringing much of Japan to a standstill. Cabinet chief secretary, Suga Yoshihide, announced simply: “The new era is Reiwa” and unveiled a framed calligraphy that presented the two Chinese characters chosen to write the name.
Within half an hour, Coca-Cola was handing out promotional plastic bottles with the new name, and Grill, a 19-year-old Californian sea lion who performs a popular calligraphy act at a marine park at Mitohama, about two hours south of Tokyo, had modified her calligraphy act to reproduce “Reiwa”.
Akihito, who is 85, stated in 2016 that he found it hard to perform his duties and announced in late 2017 that he would abdicate. Medieval emperors often abdicated in favour of a relative in order to retain influence while avoiding the demanding ritual workload of the role. However, no emperor has abdicated since 1817, and as abdication is not allowed constitutionally in modern Japan, the government had to pass special legislation to permit it. Popular support for his decision has nevertheless been overwhelming.
The monarchy is a symbol of continuity and tradition in Japan and remains highly popular. Akihito is much loved, and it is expected that Naruhito will be received in the same way.
Era names have always had huge significance in Japan – and this is the 248th time a new era has been named since the system started in 645AD. Dates in Japan have traditionally been expressed by the year of the imperial era, the gengō or nengō, and the system still dominates official life. It is commonplace still to talk of such-and-such an event of 1979 as being in Shōwa 54, or one of 2001 as being in Heisei 13. Everyone knows when they were born or married according to this system, which exists in parallel to the western calendar.
Before the modern period, era names were not the same as the emperor’s name, and most emperors’ reigns were characterised by more than one era. Names sometimes changed for reasons of good omen – as in the case of the Taika era (645-650) being replaced by the Hakuchi (“white pheasant”) era (650-655) after the emperor was given a rare albino pheasant and judged it to be lucky. More usually, they were changed to purify the reign from a recent calamitous event. For example, the change from Angen to Jishō in 1177 followed the destruction of a quarter of the capital in a huge fire.
But since 1868, the era name has remained unchanged throughout an emperor’s reign, no matter what happens. Recent emperors have been referred to in Japan solely by their era name after the end of their reign: Emperor Hirohito, as the West knows him – who reigned from December 25 1926 until his death on January 7 1989 – is referred to as the Shōwa emperor in Japan after his era name.
The era name is chosen to embody the hopes of the nation for the new reign, and is constructed from two Chinese characters with Chinese-derived pronunciations. Meiji, which ran from 1868 to 1912, was the “bright” (mei) “rule” (ji) – where the mei carried the connotations of civilisation and enlightenment, reflecting Japan at its post-feudal stage of rapid modernisation.
Meanwhile Taishō (1912-1926) was the “great rectitude”. Shōwa (1926-1989) expressed the hope for “shining peace” – but the history books can tell us that the first two decades of this era are associated instead with militarism, war and defeat. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the desire for peace was continued in Heisei (1989-2019), “creating peace”.
The second character (wa) means “peace”, “peaceful” or “harmonious”. A wish for peace is a common element in era names – as we’ve seen it has recurred in the past two era names. It has also long been used to mean “Japanese” as used in washoku “Japanese food”, and wafū “Japanese style”. So it’s a way of indelibly linking the idea of Japan with the idea of peace.
But what about the rei element? This has never been used in an era name and normally carries a range of meanings, including “command”, “law” or “cause to”. It can, however, also mean something more like “auspicious” or “good”. Suga, and 20 minutes later, Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe, explained that it was derived from the eighth-century Japanese poetry collection Man’yōshū, which includes a group of 32 traditional Japanese poems on the theme of plum blossom.
The poems’ preamble states: “Being an auspicious (rei) month in early spring, the weather was pleasant and the wind was peaceful (wa) …” So, as Abe explained, the name has connotations of spring and renewal – but also contains a wish for a Japan where everyone and their hopes for the future can bloom.
It is significant that the name has come from a Japanese work. Previous names have been couched in Chinese literary tradition – so this marks a significant break. Abe and his conservative support in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had been calling for a name rooted in Japanese literary heritage.
Shōwa is remembered as an era of war and defeat followed by national and economic rebirth, while Heisei will be associated with Japan’s economic stagnation and demographic crisis. Ultimately, then, the significance of Reiwa will only be understood in light of the events of the new reign.