Q&A: What's in a name for Japan emperor's new era?
Japan’s government has unveiled an era name, “Reiwa,” or “pursuing harmony,” for soon-to-be Emperor Naruhito, who will succeed the Chrysanthemum throne on May 1. His father, Emperor Akihito, is abdicating, with his “Heisei” era coming to an end the day before. A selection of the name was a top secret and the decision comes after highly guarded closed meetings and intense media speculation.
On Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ultra-conservative government chose the name for the first time from an ancient Japanese document, breaking with the tradition of taking them from Chinese classic literature, a step seen as reflecting Abe’s attempt to bolster national pride.
Some questions and answers regarding the process of picking an era name:
WHAT IS THE ERA NAME?
The era name, or “gengo,” is a 1,400-year-old Japanese tradition tied to emperors’ reigns to showcase their power. The names change when a new emperor takes the throne. It becomes an emperor’s official posthumous name — Akihito’s father, Hirohito, is now named after his era, “Showa.”
Originally a Chinese tradition, the era name is made of two Chinese characters taken from classic Chinese literature. Japan adopted the system in 645 and has since had 247 eras, including Akihito’s 1989-2019 “Heisei,” which means “achieving peace.” Showa is the longest era, at 64 years. Akihito’s Heisei is the first decided by the government under the postwar constitution, in which the emperor is stripped of political power and had no say over the choice.
Still, the government, with its highly secretive and sensitive handling of the process, is underscoring that “the emperor has power in an invisible, subtle way,” said Hirohito Suzuki, a Toyo University sociologist.
HOW WIDELY IS THE ERA NAME USED?
The era name is only for domestic use. Although its use is not compulsory, Japanese government offices and businesses still widely use the system in official documents, coins, calendars and for other paperwork. Middle-age to elderly people often use “gengo” to identify their generations, while younger people prefer the Western calendar over the era name as conversions are cumbersome in a highly globalized and digitalized society.
Popularity of era names has dropped to less than half over the past four decades since the late 1970s. Though impractical, the era name is considered Japan’s traditional culture and is expected to continue despite persistent calls by some to abolish it.
WHO DECIDES THE ERA NAME AND HOW?
The procedures to change the era name is based on a 1979 law, with the government picking a team of experts on classical literature in Chinese to find and nominate several names each for top officials to review. It is a complicated process that must meet certain criteria — easy to read and write but not commonly or previously used. Japanese media have been scrambling to get scoops out. The names of the scholars and their nominations have been and will be classified for decades.
On Monday, Abe’s government chose the name drawn from Japan’s oldest poetry book, “Manyoshu” from the 7th century, breaking with Japan’s 1,400-year-old tradition — a step seen reflecting Abe’s attempt to bolster national pride that he says was weakened by war-guilt campaigns during U.S. occupation after Japan’s World War II defeat.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE ERA NAME CHANGES?
A change of an era name causes a major hassle for government offices and businesses, which have to revise computer systems and software. It also leads to printing new train tickets, stamps, coins, receipts and calendars. The new era name was announced a month ahead of the start of Naruhito’s reign to allow for time to adjust.
Because of a festive mood surrounding the upcoming era change, the event is also creating businesses for both the outgoing and the incoming eras. The abdication and succession events that come in the middle of the annual “golden week” expand the holidays to 10 days, bolstering tourism and other consumer spending.
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