Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces the new era name 'Reiwa' at a press conference in Tokyo on April 1. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Something unprecedented will take place in modern Japan at the end of this month. Emperor Akihito will step down and allow his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

That transition began on Monday with the announcement that Naruhito will be officially known as the “Reiwa Emperor.” Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga displayed a placard showing the Chinese characters for the new era, which were taken from Manyoshu, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry.

There are two characters in Reiwa, the first represents “fortune” and the second “peace” or “harmony.”

The era name change, only the fourth in the last 100 years, will carry through until the end of the new emperor’s life and beyond, as deceased emperors are known by their era name. Akihito, for example, is the “Heisei Emperor.”

Does it matter?

In Japan, an era name change isn’t just some academic exercise interesting only to connoisseurs of historical exotica. It will have a very real and personal impact on every Japanese.

That is because Japanese people count the years in terms of reign names. Last year, 2018, for example, was Heisei 30. It is unusual that a country as modern as Japan would cling to such an old fashioned method of counting the years – it would be as if Britons counted 2018 as “Gloriana 67” or the 67th year of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

It is not just official or academic documents that tell time in era years. A bus pass lets the user know that it expires in Heisei 31, or later this year. When filling out a medical form one encounters a peculiar string of letters – “M.T.S.H. – circle one.”

They stand for “Meiji,” “Taisho,” “Showa” and “Heisei,” the four reigns of the modern era. The medical form is simply asking for a birthdate.

In actual fact, ordinary Japanese themselves get confused about dates, considering that Japan uses two systems – the other being the familiar Gregorian calendar common in the West – simultaneously.

But technology comes to the rescue. This writer’s neighbor, Shigeru Nakazaki, showed me an app on his iPhone that automatically switches one into the other, like a currency converter.

And yet, the use of reign names is dying in Japan, according to Shigeti Ogura, an associate professor at the National Museum of Japanese history. He cited a recent Mainichi newspaper survey that found that 30% of respondents did not routinely use new era names.

Japanese blue chips that do business in the wider world tend to avoid using the imperial reign names in their correspondence. “Our products and services are based on the Western calendar year system,” a Sony official told Asia Times.

Of course, everyone else’s calendars will have to be re-programmed now the new era name has been officially announced.  And that means some enterprises are set to make money.

Calendar publishers eagerly awaited the formal naming so they can work things into their production schedules. They successfully lobbied Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make the announcement a full month before the enthronement for this reason.

What’s in an era?

The Heisei era dates back to the death of Emperor Hirohito and took effect as soon as Akihito ascended the throne in 1989.  It means “Peace Everywhere.”

Although it encompassed Japan’s so-called “lost decade” and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Akihito’s era was certainly more peaceful than his father’s reign, the Showa era. Showa, the “Period of Radiant Japan” (1926-1989) was marked by the great depression, the Pacific War, countless atrocities and horrors including the atomic bombing of Japan, and the American occupation of the island nation, ushering in massive change.

Prior to Showa, the Taiso (“Great Righteousness”) era, which ran from 1912 to 1926, was relatively stable. The Meiji era, from 1868 to 1912, saw the end of the shogunate, the restoration of the emperor, and the extraordinarily swift modernization of Japan, which provided it with a massive step up on its East Asian neighbors. The name of that era was highly appropriate: Meiji means “Enlightened Government.”

When it comes to the naming of a new era, there are some fundamental considerations. The new name must fit in a two Chinese-character format and must be easy for Japanese people to remember and use. The actual meaning of the name is less important (which may explain why – in translation, at least – so many of the era names sound so similar).

But the situation this time is unusual in that the current monarch, having abdicated, will still be living when the crown prince takes over under a new name.

Akihito’s desire to abdicate is no secret. In August last year, the emperor made a rare televised speech directly to the Japanese people. In it, he said he was increasingly concerned that his age – he is now 85 – would make it difficult for him to carry out his duties.

He never actually used the word “abdication” as that would imply that he was specifically asking parliament to pass legislation, which would be inappropriate in his position as a constitutional monarch.

However, everybody got the message. The government began working on passing a law allowing the emperor to formally retire, as there is no specific reference to abdication in the Imperial Household Law that governs the monarch’s status.

Curiously, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party government restricted the abdication legislation to the incumbent alone, rather than creating a broader mandate for reigning monarchs to abdicate.

Abe was worried about opening the whole imperial system to revision, as there are plenty of divisive issues surrounding the monarchy. Probably the most contentious is allowing women to ascend the throne as reigning monarchs.

By law, it is restricted to men only.

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