A New Era for Japan: Shōwa to Heisei to the Future

Abdication’s Early Warning Eased Era Name Choice

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The choice of Reiwa as era name marks a departure from tradition as the first to be drawn from a Japanese, rather than Chinese, literary classic.

Inspired by An Ancient Plum Blossom Party

On April 1, 2019, the government officially announced Reiwa as the name for the new era that began in May: the 248th in Japanese history. The name is derived from a prose introduction to a sequence of poems in the Man’yōshū, Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry: In 730, on a pleasant day in early spring, blessed by fine weather and a slight breeze, a plum blossom party was held at Dazaifu in Kyūshū—an occasion for sophisticated literati and court officials to gather under the plum blossoms and compose poetry. The characters for Reiwa (令和) come from the Chinese prose (kanbun) preface to poems composed at the party: 初春月、気淑風、梅――」 “It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft, and the plum blossoms . . .” (trans. Edwin Cranston, The Gem-Glistening Cup). The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has suggested “beautiful harmony” as an English rendering of the new name.

At a press conference held shortly after the official announcement, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō spoke about the new era name in the following terms: “Just as the plum blossoms announce the arrival of spring after the harsh cold of winter and bloom splendidly in all their glory, all Japanese will be able to make their own blossoms come into full bloom, together with their hopes for tomorrow. We decided on ’Reiwa‘ with the hope that Japan will be just such a nation.” Referring to the Man’yōshū, he emphasized the collection’s status as a “a Japanese work containing poems composed by people from a wide range of strata in society, including not only emperors, imperial family members, and nobility, but also soldiers and farmers; it symbolizes Japan’s rich national culture and long-established traditions.”

The names of all Japan’s previous eras, from Taika, which began in 645, to the current Heisei era now drawing to an end, had been taken from Chinese literary classics. It seems likely that the decision to look to a Japanese text as the source of the new name was at least partly driven by the prime minister’s personal support for the idea. The decision to use a “native Japanese” text for the new era name has been positively received by most Japanese, far beyond the constituency of the prime minister’s usual supporters.

But the decision-making process was not all plain sailing. One problem lay with the proposals put forward by the council of experts. The government started its deliberations at the beginning of the year, but as late as early March there was still no proposal for an era name derived from a Japanese text that was agreed to be definitely better than the Chinese alternatives. It seemed likely that once again the government would be forced to fall back on Chinese sources, as had happened when the Heisei name was chosen 30 years ago. The government asked its committee of experts to come up with additional proposals. Reiwa only emerged as a candidate close to the deadline for a final decision. It is widely believed that the idea was put forward by Nakanishi Susumu, a widely decorated eighty-nine-year-old emeritus professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies who is considered one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Man’yōshū, though Professor Nakanishi himself has refused to confirm this.

Shoppers in the Ginza district of Tokyo snap commemorative photos of a sign announcing the new era name in a shop window on April 1, 2019. (© Jiji)
Shoppers in the Ginza district of Tokyo snap commemorative photos of a sign announcing the new era name in a shop window on April 1, 2019. (© Jiji)

A Call to The Palace

Public expectations were high in the lead-up to the official announcement, but nevertheless, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide was fully 11 minutes late to the press conference at the prime minister’s office, due to start at 11:30. The cabinet meeting held to confirm the new era name had finished at 11:25. What was going on in the meantime? In fact, another important event took place during the 11 minutes before the belated announcement was eventually made. Having received notification of the new name from the government, the grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency and his deputy were giving an official report to the emperor and crown prince.

For most of Japanese history, era names were decided by the emperor himself, or at least people around him at court. This continued to be the case until the Shōwa era (1926–1989). The recent occasion was therefore only the second time the government has been responsible for choosing an era name. Since the start of the Meiji era (1868–1912), each emperor’s reign has been given a single era name. (Previously, era names changed more frequently.) The era name is also used in Japan to refer posthumously to the emperor himself, so the government quite rightly took steps to inform the palace of the new era before announcing it to the public. The crown prince, now Emperor Naruhito, who received the news at the Tōgū Palace in Tokyo, is said to have reacted to the news with a smile.

Some people initially felt uncomfortable with the implications of the character 令, which will be used in an era name for the first time. This reaction was presumably triggered by the close associations the character has in most people’s minds with the word 命令 (meirei), meaning order or command, probably the commonest context in which the character occurs in modern Japanese. But people soon remembered other compounds in which the character is used in a more positive sense, such as 令名 (reimei; esteem) and came to feel that the character was suitable for use in an era name after all. It is not often that people’s understanding of the basic “meaning” of a character changes so quickly.

The procedures for choosing the new name started at nine thirty in the morning and concluded just two hours later. The preliminary experts’ meeting was also quite short, at just 36 minutes. Even if this was longer than the equivalent meeting on the previous occasion when a new era name had to be chosen (which lasted just 20 minutes), the circumstances were somewhat different this time. There were six candidates—twice as many as 30 years ago. Was it really possible to discuss the merits of all the proposals in such a short time? Despite having gathered nine eminent experts from various fields for this important session, it seems the meeting itself was somewhat rushed, perhaps because the timing of the announcement was already set in stone. Probably more will need to be done to reflect the opinions of the general public when deciding new era names in the future.

The New Era Gets off to a Popular Start

The Man’yōshū preface from which the Reiwa characters are taken bears a close resemblance to phrases from the Wen Xuan (Selections of Refined Literature), a Chinese anthology of prose and poetry compiled around 250 years before the Man’yōshū. This has led some people to argue that the new era name actually represents a second-hand borrowing from a Chinese source after all. But the immediate source is the Man’yōshū passage describing the plum blossom party at Dazaifu; I therefore believe it is fair to describe this as the first gengō derived from a Japanese, rather than a Chinese, literary source.

The lines evoke the poets and other cultured men of Man’yōshū times, learning from the imported Chinese civilization and steeped in Chinese literature, but nevertheless working to develop the culture and learning of their own nation as Japanese scholars and court officials. The culture of waka poetry that began with the Man’yōshū continues to flourish today, and annual traditions like the poetry recital at the start of each year are surviving traditions that connect us to our forebears from more than a millennium ago. In this sense, the decision to choose an era name inspired by the Man’yōshū seems a fitting choice indeed.

A public opinion survey in the Yomiuri Shimbun on April 3 suggested that 62% of people felt positive about the new era name. An even higher proportion (88%) supported the choice of a Japanese classic as the source for the new name. Throughout the country, there is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation as a new era begins.

How Heisei Began

More than 30 years ago, when the Heisei era name was announced on the afternoon of January 7, 1989, flags throughout the country were at half-mast. It was the first time the government had been responsible for choosing a new era name, under the postwar Constitution introduced halfway through the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).

From early morning, pressure was on the government to settle on a name for the new era, in a rush of activity while the nation marked the passing of the previous emperor and court ceremonials took place as the new emperor assumed the three sacred treasures. The preparations for the changeover, predicated as it was on the death of the reigning emperor, were carried out in absolute secrecy, far from the public gaze.

Those responsible have since revealed that they were eager to consider a name drawn from a Japanese classic, and asked specialists in Japanese literature to submit proposals. Unfortunately, no appropriate candidate could be found in time, and it was decided to postpone the adoption of a Japanese-derived era name for another time. Three proposals were put before the panel of experts that marks the first step in choosing a new era name, and government figures from the time have admitted that they guided the panel of experts so that Heisei would ultimately be chosen. For reasons of convenience, it was felt preferable to have an era name that started with a different initial letter from any of the previous three reigns (Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa). Unfortunately, the two other candidates both started with S, the same capital letter as the previous era. The lack of time, and the fact that this was the first time the government had needed to make this decision, meant that fumbles of this kind were probably unavoidable at the time. Once the name had been decided, the new emperor was informed, as on this more recent occasion.

Getting Used to The New Name

Not long after this, Obuchi Keizō, chief cabinet secretary at the time, duly held aloft for the waiting cameras a sign inscribed with calligraphic renderings of the two characters for the new era. The government explained that they were drawn from passages in two Chinese classics, the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, and Shujing, or Book of Documents. (The lines in question: from the Shiji, 内, “the interior is peaceful and the exterior is stable”; from the Shujing "the Earth is peaceful and nature/heaven is stable/at peace.”) Both passages refer to a state of peace inside and outside the country. 

I was listening to the news with a cohort of my fellow journalists at the IHA at the time, and remember audible expressions of surprise when the Heisei name was announced. Although I don’t think I said so out loud, I do remember feeling that Heisei didn’t sound quite “right” as an era name at first. The first character reminded me of Heiankyō, the old name for Kyoto, and was therefore associated in my mind with an ancient historical period, while the two characters in combination somehow felt less coherent and solid than the familiar “Shōwa” name of the previous era.

The papers the next day carried comments by at least one expert who expressed views close to my own. “My first impression was that the new era name felt a little nondescript,” he wrote. “Partly, no doubt, this is the result of unfamiliarity. But the pronunciation is also partly to blame: the repetition of the same vowel sounds in the two characters. It’s only now that the change has occurred that I realize how well Shōwa worked as a name for the previous era.” I felt more or less the same way. But after studying the characters and getting used to seeing them together, I came to interpret them according to their literal sense, as meaning “peace coming into being.” I soon reconsidered my opinion and felt they might make a suitable era name after all.

The era that has just reached its end therefore did not make a splash with wholly positive impressions when it began. Today, it is remembered affectionately as a positive time of peace, symbolized by an emperor and empress who worked to stay close to the people and were supported by them in return. A new era, Reiwa, began on May 1. The nation looks forward in hope to what it may bring.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 17, 2019. Banner photo: Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide holds aloft the characters spelling out the new era name in Tokyo on April 1, 2019. © Jiji.)

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