April 04, 2019

The name of the new era

In Japan, the school year and the fiscal year begin on the first day of April. This year saw another first on the first. Shortly before noon, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the era name that will mark the reign of Emperor Naruhito after he is enthroned on 1 May 2019.

The name of the new era is "Reiwa" (令和), pronounced "lay-wah" in Japanese. In a unique step, instead of referencing the Chinese classics, the usage for the kanji was taken from the Man'yoshu. Dating to the 8th century, it is the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry. The Japan Times explains,

The Man'yoshu passage that inspired Reiwa was written by poet Otomo no Tabito as an introduction to 32 plum-themed poems penned by his poet friends, according to officials. In the introduction, rei refers to "reigetsu" or "auspicious month," while wa describes the peaceful manner of an early spring breeze.

In contemporary Japanese, rei (令) means "dictate" or "decree." The more common wa is the same "wa" as in "Showa," the era name of Emperor Hirohito. It means "peace" or "harmony." So a literal reading of Reiwa based on modern meanings might be along the lines of "order and peace."

As University of Tokyo historian Kazuto Hongo observes, "The name sounds as if we are ordered to achieve peace, rather than doing so proactively."

The intended meaning based on the context provided by the Man'yoshu is something more like "auspicious harmony." In an effort to counter the "order and peace" interpretation, the Foreign Ministry has since clarified that the "official" English translation of Reiwa is "beautiful harmony."

In a press conference following the presentation by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Prime Minister Abe waxed poetic.

We have decided the new name to be "Reiwa" in the hope that Japan will be a country where each Japanese person can achieve success with hopes for the future like plum flowers that bloom brilliantly after the severe cold.

As far as that goes, the kanji 麗 (rei) does unambiguously refer to beauty, but it violates the "simple to read and write" rule that a modern gengou must follow. Both 麗 and 令 (especially as a radical) have long been used in names for girls. In the coming years, they will likely become more common.

The proclamation of the era name traditionally follows the death of the emperor. Two years ago, in a national address, Emperor Akihito made clear his desire to retire, citing his age and declining health. A year later, a bill was passed by the Diet creating the necessary legal framework and timeline of events.

Emperor Akihito will formally abdicate on 30 April 2019. His son becomes emperor on 1 May 2019, and the new gengou will begin. So the rest of 2019 will be Reiwa 1 and 2020 will be Reiwa 2.

Unique among Asian nations, the gengou (元号) or nengou (年号) is not simply ceremonial, but is used in all government documents, from currency to birth certificates, and is widely adopted throughout the private sector. Practically any official document will include the gengou and the Gregorian date.

In their day to day activities, especially in years like 2019 with two gengou, Japanese have to be "bilingual" in gengou and Gregorian.

The modern gengou system (since 1868) actually constituted a great improvement. As Donald Keene explains in Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World,

Until the adoption of Meiji as the name for Mutsuhito's entire reign, the nengou was traditionally changed several times during the reign of a single emperor—at two fixed points in the cycle of sixty years, or when a series of natural disasters were attributed to an inauspicious nengou or when some prodigy of nature required recognition in the calendar.

In the modern era, a group of scholars in classical Japanese and Chinese literature and history comes up with a list of era names. Then the Chief Cabinet Secretary gathers input from leading opinion leaders, such as Nobel laureate Shin'ya Yamanaka and Naoki Prize winning writer Mariko Hayashi.

The short list is presented to the leadership of both chambers of the Diet, after which the full Cabinet makes the final selection.

Over the next month, computer programmers will have their hands full updating all of the date-dependent software. Crown Prince Naruhito is a healthy 59 years old, so the Reiwa era should last a good twenty or thirty years, at which point the whole process will begin once again.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
4/04/2019 2:05 PM   
So, Prince Hisahito will be third in line with three older sisters/cousin .Has there been any serious discussion since his birth to change this?

Also curious if Japan would be bothered if they got rid of the monarchy?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
4/05/2019 12:07 PM   
A few years ago, given that Emperor Akihito had no grandsons, there was a fair amount of discussion about modifying the laws governing imperial succession. But with the birth of Prince Hisahito, the old guard breathed a deep sigh of relief and kicked the can down the road as far as they could.