Japan's new era name - what does it mean?

On April 30, Japan’s Emperor Akihito will step down from the throne, marking the end of the Heisei era. The next era will be named Reiwa, it has been announced. The Asia Media Centre spoke with Shin Takahashi, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, about the significance of Japan’s new era.

Japan new era name

The new name, Reiwa, was revealed at a press conference on April 1.

So, what does the new era name mean?

Shin Takahashi: The name of the new regnal era, which was announced on April 1, is Reiwa. This is made of two Chinese characters: Rei means goodness and respect for others, and it also means order. Wa is harmony. The name is derived from Japan's oldest collection of poems, Manyoshu. This name is unique because unlike the previous era names, which were derived from classical Chinese texts, Reiwa is derived from a Japanese classic. Also, the character rei has never been used before for the name of an era. In summary, the meaning, and aspiration for the new era, is "to make an era in which hope can bloom like flowers at the beginning of spring".

Can you explain how Japan’s calendar system works?

We have two calendars. One is the Western calendar, or seireki. The other is the regnal year, based on the reign of the emperor – we call this one gengo. We use both calendars, but the official one is gengo. When you need to fill out official documents, you’re supposed to remember what year it is based on gengo. For example, if it’s 1st January 2019, we say 1st January, Heisei 31.

Why is gengo still used?

It’s a tradition. By using gengo, we demonstrate that we have our own way of counting time, so the Japanese government can differentiate Japan from the rest of the world. Before 1945, it was more to show the sovereignty of the emperor over time as well as territory. But after 1945, the position of the emperor became more symbolic, so the nature of gengo also changed to become more symbolic.

Does the new era name always coincide with a new emperor?

This has been the case since the Meiji era, which started in 1868. The government decided to adopt the principle of ‘one emperor, one era’ – the name of the regnal year changes when the emperor passes away. But in the past, the imperial court would change the name of the era to ‘refresh’ society. So every time they experienced some sort of disaster or war or unfortunate event, they would change the name.

"The change of the regnal era is a moment that we can use to contemplate our past."

How is the new era name chosen? What is the process?

This time, the emperor decided to abdicate, which was very exceptional. So the process is not the same as previous eras. The cabinet appointed people to a committee to discuss and decide what the name will be. There were politicians, intellectuals, experts of Japanese and Chinese literature. The cabinet selects very important people from each field.

How do people in Japan feel about the new era?

People working for the government will be very anxious. They’ll need to refresh all the systems and computers – it’s being called Japan’s Y2K problem. Otherwise, I think the general feeling is positive. It’s a new start. It also coincides with some big events happening over the next few years, for example, this year we’ll have the Rugby World Cup, we’ll have the Tokyo Olympics next year, and the World Expo in Osaka in 2025. This gives the public a bright image of the future. Of course, for historians, it’s very important. The change of the regnal era is a moment that we can use to contemplate our past.

In Japan, do people use the eras as a way of defining a generation’s characteristics?

Definitely. We say people born in Heisei are different from people born in Showa – they’re more relaxed, they’re more individualistic, they’re anti-social. That’s the stereotype of people born in Heisei. The word ‘millennial’ is common in the western world, but in Japan, we tend to differentiate people based on this regnal era.

How do you think people will look back on the Heisei era?

One of the things that is remarkable is that it was a relatively stable period. Having said that, we also experienced things like the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, followed by the sarin attack in Tokyo, and of course we had the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. But in the larger picture, Heisei is a period of stability.  

Interview by Siobhan Downes.

- Asia Media Centre