After Chief Cabinet Member Yoshihide Suga flipped that glorious framed calligraphy to reveal what the new era for Japan would be, things began to change in the country. The age of Akihito is drawing to a close as his son, Naruhito, will ascend on May 1st. But what is all of this about eras and what exactly is Reiwa? I decided to make a small primer on this new era for my own reference and for the reference of others.
The Japanese Calendar: Japanese Eras
Did you know the Japanese have their own calendar? Its true! Its based on gengo ( 元号 ), sometimes known as nengo ( 年号 ), or the “year name.” This happens once an emperor dies and passes on the throne, or, in the rare case of abdication, the date he abdicates and his successor takes over. The system was borrowed from the Chinese Imperial practice that dates back to 140 CE. The Japanese started their take on naming eras after emperor’s reigns in 645 CE with the Taika ( 大化 ) era. There was a period in the seventh century where the tradition fell out of practice, but it was swiftly picked up again in 701 CE where it has remained in practice until this very day. The era names are usually two kanji that represent the desires, hopes, or reflect some historical moment for the times. For example, the current Heisei era ( 平成 ) means “Achieving peace” or “Peace accomplished.” The current emperor took over after his father, Hirohito, passed away in 1989. Hirohito, of course, was the emperor during World War II, so the message of peace for the new era probably reflected the will and hopes of the people for the reign of his son.
Reiwa: What it Means
Now that Akihito is gone and Hirohito is here, let’s discuss Reiwa. It takes a while for the Japanese government to come out with an official translation into other languages because of the subtlety and wordplay that goes into the era name selection process.
The big controversy this time was with the kanji “rei” (令). It can translate to order or command, with “wa” (和), which can mean harmony or peace. Some took this to mean that the new era name reflected a will to enforce peace, and given Shinzo Abe’s desires to remilitarize Japan, this had some foreign observers a bit on edge. Others also worried that this name would agitate Japan’s neighbors, Korea and China, as Japan has ongoing disputes with both countries (one such example is the pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are enshrined).
The Prime Minister himself and many top officials have come out to clarify the meaning of the phrase, which they say takes its meaning from the oldest collection of Japanese poetry known, the Manyoshu (Collection of Myriad Leaves). They cite a specific passage written by Otomo no Tabito where he used the character with the character for month (月, pronounced sometimes as gatsu or getsu) to make the phrase “auspicious month” (令月, or “reigetsu”). Thus, their translation of the era name is more akin to “beautiful harmony,” with “beautiful” being another one of the lesser-known meanings for “rei.”
The name also invokes the image of resilient plum blossoms emerging after a long or harsh winter. Masaru Sato, head of the Japan Information Center in New York, also said this name means “the beauty of people when they bring their hearts together.”
While the naming of the era tends to predict the future, time will tell if Naruhito’s reign will truly bring about beautiful harmony. What do you think? Is this a case of the government trying to cover its tracks? Or is it a legitimate artistic license that got lost in translation?