The Struggle for “Reiwa” Secrecy

Politics Society

Japan’s journalists worked hard for a career-making scoop on the new era name, but largely without success, as government officials maintained a tight ship. Some clues were discovered about the selection process, though.

Behind-the-Scenes Tussle for a Scoop

In the lead-up to the announcement of the name for the new imperial era, media organizations were itching for a scoop. However, the government’s defense proved impenetrable, and the new era name, Reiwa, was announced without any leaks.

In contrast, a century ago, the Osaka Asahi Shimbun (today’s Asahi Shimbun) revealed the name for the Taishō era (1912–26), publishing an extra edition with the exclusive scoop. This was later followed by the so-called Kōbun incident, at the transition from Taishō to Shōwa, when Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun (now the Mainichi Shimbun) published a special edition incorrectly announcing the new era name as 光文 (Kōbun), although it turned out to be 昭和 (Shōwa).

Opinions may differ on the ethics of exposing a new era name ahead of time; nevertheless, reporters hustled day and night to obtain information in the lead-up to the official announcement. So how did government officials involved in the selection of the era name prevent journalists from shining light on its selection?

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide announces the new imperial era name on April 1.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide announces the new imperial era name on April 1.

Two Months Spent Culling Options

The topic of the era name was first raised in discussions by the prime minister’s staff in early February, around two months before the officially announcement on April 1.

On February 8, the government convened its first confidential meeting to consider procedures for selecting the era name. It was later revealed that this first meeting saw the decision made to follow the precedent of the transition to the current Heisei era. However, in later interviews, Kantei officials stated that precedent did not imply that the numbers of proposed names or panel members would be identical to those seen when Shōwa gave way to Heisei in 1989. Such speculations spurred media organizations to investigate the process of determining the new era name.

Of course, the ultimate goal of all media companies was to score a major scoop by uncovering the era name itself. But a government official sought to rein in overenthusiastic journalists, sternly warning them that “If the new era name is revealed, we will change it. On this point we’re locked in battle with you in the media.”

Tiny Clues to the Selection Process

As journalists’ investigations grew more intense, government officials revealed certain guidelines that were in play: The new name should be something a child could write, and needed to give a good first impression. It should avoid ambiguous characters that might be read in different ways. Furthermore, one official pointed to previously used characters that presented key meanings at a glance, such as 平 (hei, peace) or 和 (wa, harmony).

Now that we know the era name is Reiwa, we agree that it is difficult to read the characters any other way, and the inclusion of the character “wa” also seems reasonable.

But one of the selection criteria was to avoid a term in popular use. After the previous era name, Heisei, was announced, it was soon discovered that the same characters were used in a place name in Gifu Prefecture, albeit with a different reading: “Henari.” After this became news, questions arose as to how necessary it was to avoid duplication with names of existing places, companies, or people.

On this occasion, government officials had the Internet as a search tool, which was not the case when naming the Heisei era. Consequently, they were better able to research whether proposed names were already in use. However, they admitted limitations, commenting: “There’s no such thing as a perfect name. We will choose the name with the fewest foibles.” Of course, after the announcement, media immediately found individuals who shared the name “Reiwa”—including some men with the same characters as a given name, pronounced “Norikazu”—but officials were no doubt already aware of these individuals.

Officials Get Tight-Lipped

In March, with less than a month to go until the formal announcement, certain media reported a minor scoop: details on when Prime Minister Abe Shinzō would inform Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito of the new name. Thereafter, the government became more conscious of confidentiality. A complete change in attitude emerged among parties who, in the past, had provided the press with insights into government machinations. They clammed up whenever the topic was broached, stating only that “heads would roll” if word got out.

The government sought to hide the identities of experts consulted over the era name, to protect them from media hounding before the announcement, but this proved unsuccessful, making officials even more nervous.

Tension Grows over the Leak Threat

It seemed nearly impossible for the press to obtain scoop-level information from those closest to the prime minister, where confidentiality was tightest. The more likely option was through the experts consulted by the cabinet secretariat, the leaders of either house of the Diet, or the cabinet ministers.

How could the government defend itself from leaks through such channels? Officials claimed that the experts’ cellphones would be confiscated during all meetings to prevent the new name being shared with the outside world on the spot. The existence of a locker impervious to phone signals was also revealed, indicating the extent of efforts to guard information. Essentially, they continued to drop hints to the media that any attempt to discover the name would be in vain.

However, while it was certainly possible for the Kantei to confiscate mobile phones from the cabinet ministers and the outside experts, it would have been difficult to demand the same of the top figures in the legislative branch. It was also noted that devices like smartwatches have many of the same functions as cellphones. Kantei officials finally said it was a “matter of trust,” admitting that there were limits to how successfully they could restrict the carrying of devices into meetings. Instead, the government attempted to block phone signals, preventing communication with the outside during meetings.

A worker heads into the Kantei on March 23, potentially to install signal-jamming equipment.
A worker heads into the Kantei on March 23, potentially to install signal-jamming equipment.

One quiet Saturday morning at the prime minister’s official residence, FNN cameras captured exclusive footage of secret construction work. That day, busy workers were spotted furtively entering and exiting the Kantei’s rear entrance. This must have been when a radio signal jammer was installed to prevent communication with external parties.

The official imperial era name announcement was made on April 1. That day, Kantei staff revealed that phone reception was being jammed in the corridors of the building. Journalists reporting on the extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet confirmed that their cellphones lost signal in the area.

Preparations Reach Fever Pitch

In the final week of March, as the announcement drew near, preparations at the prime minister’s residence were almost complete.

A major development took place on the night of March 28. That evening, a small group held a 90-minute rehearsal in the Kantei press conference hall. Remotely operated cameras installed in the room by media organizations were blocked with temporary barriers and only caught a glimpse of the proceedings.

On March 29, final preparations were apparently underway; one a member of the selection committee was unexpectedly absent from a regular meeting, among other signs of activity. That night, an executive member of the prime minister’s staff nervously approached waiting journalists and responded to questions more courteously than ever, giving the impression that preparations were mostly over.

Mozumi Osami, a cabinet-appointed specialist for abdication matters.
Mozumi Osami, a cabinet-appointed specialist for abdication matters.

In fact, that Friday, FNN cameras spotted Mozumi Osami, who wrote the calligraphy of the era name for the announcement, as he visited the prime minister’s residence. This was almost certainly the moment when he practiced the calligraphy for the main event.

After the Announcement, Officials Open Up

On April 1, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga formally announced the chosen name for the new era, Reiwa, just before noon. The “battle” had ended with a government victory—there had been no media scoop. Later, officials appeared before journalists, faces beaming.

“Good work. We hope we haven’t inconvenienced you.”

This felt like an apology for failing to respond to any of our questioning. Those involved in developing government policy usually interact with journalists. In this case, they confessed it had been tough keeping silent about the era name and it selection process.

The Reiwa era begins at midnight on May 1, 2019, just weeks from now. How should we approach this new age, and what lies ahead? We look forward to reporting the inauguration of Reiwa and developments beyond.

(Political Desk Imperial Era Team)

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on April 4, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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