Blog: Defining Japan in just one word: ‘Reiwa’ is the chosen one

The new name has been formulated based on a poem from Manyoshu, the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry.

Apr 01, 2019 05:01:00 AM | Article | Sandeep Goyal

History was made at 11.30am local time in Tokyo earlier today. In a much-awaited moment that heralded a new chapter in Japan’s history, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the name of the new Imperial era: Reiwa, taking one of the final steps toward initiating the nation’s first imperial succession in three decades.
Suga held up a work of handwritten calligraphy - written in traditional sumi ink on decorated shikishi paper - showing off the kanji characters for the new era. The new name has been formulated based on a poem from Manyoshu, the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. The first character of the new gengo (era name) represents ‘fortunate’, while the second can be translated as ‘peace or harmony’. This is the first time that the characters chosen have been taken from classical Japanese literature. Prior era names had used kanji from classical Chinese literature. The new era will start on May 1, when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, a day earlier. The arrival of Reiwa will in turn end a 30-year run of the Heisei (‘achieving peace’) Era, which began on Jan. 8, 1989. The new era will be the 248th in the history of Japan, which has used the Chinese-style calendar system since 645 BC. In modern times, each era has run the length of an emperor’s reign.
With gengo often seen as reflective of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the nation, speculation had been rife all over the world about what the new era would be named. The naming of a new Imperial era is a significant event in Japan . Gengo, as it is called, plays an integral role — both practically and psychologically — in the lives of Japanese people. In a nation where gengo has long been cherished as a way of identifying a year — as in Heisei 31, which corresponds to 2019, in the reign of current Emperor Akihito — in many official documents and computer systems, its change has had far-reaching practical implications, too. Local municipality officials, computer engineers and calendar manufacturers have spent months preparing for necessary changes in IT systems.
What differentiated the arrival of the latest era from its past four predecessors — Heisei, Showa, Taisho and Meiji — is that the government has announced its name while the reigning Emperor is still alive. This is because Emperor Akihito — in a rare address to the nation in August 2016 — hinted at his desire to abdicate due to his advanced age, as opposed to his immediate predecessors who reigned until their deaths. His unprecedented address soon kicked off preparations for what will be the first abdication by a sitting Japanese monarch in around 200 years.
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal has worked with Japan for over 25 years. His book ‘Japan Made Easy’ , published by Harper Collins,  will be in book shops later this summer.)