With Emperor Naruhito, a new era begins in Japan on May 1: Gone is Heisei (Creating Peace), time for Reiwa (Happy Harmony).
Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga presents the name of the new era: "Reiwa" Photo: reuters
Half of Japan sat spellbound in front of the television on Monday afternoon, waiting for the name for the new era that will begin on May 1 with the inauguration of the new Emperor Naruhito. Finally, Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga stepped in front of the cameras 15 minutes late and unveiled a wood-framed plaque with two characters. "The new era name is Reiwa," Suga announced. All TV stations broadcast the phrase live and held up to the plaque for minutes. What was the word creation supposed to mean? The character for the syllable "Rei" stands for "good" or "happy", the character for "wa" for "harmony", "calm" or "peace". Read together, it could mean "good peace" or "happy harmony.
The TV pundits eagerly debated until Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shed some light. "Reiwa means that a culture is born and grows when people come together in a beautiful way and care for each other," the prime minister read from the teleprompter. Like the blossom, the hope for the future can blossom, he said. "This is the best name to show our hope for the new era," Abe opined.
That the name holds such poetry may be because the two characters come from a poem about the plum blossom, found in Japan’s first collection of poems dating back to the 8th century. So behind the beautiful poetry was an unpalatable nationalist message. Indeed, all of the previous 247 era names were sought in literary classics from China. Japan also took over the tradition of era names from China. In this way, the celestial emperors expressed that they also controlled time. The right-wing conservative Abe justified the break with tradition by saying that Japan also had timeless values.
In the four weeks leading up to Emperor Akihito’s abdication on April 30 and the end of his Heisei (Make Peace) term, Japan’s government agencies and businesses must now prepare their software and forms for Reiwa. The large expense is one reason why some object to the naming tradition. Other critics consider the era names to be outmoded in principle. After all, the postwar constitution degraded the emperor from imperial ruler to "symbol of state and national unity." Since then, the people have ruled and the era should no longer be based on the emperor. But the objection was overheard this time as well.