On April 01, 2019 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held up a whiteboard with some kanji characters handwritten on it and announced the name of the new Japanese imperial era “Reiwa”. A name which means “ order and harmony ”, will appear on calendars, coins, driving licenses, newspapers, and official paperwork and is a significant part of people’s lives in Japan. The name of the imperial era or the “gengo” marks the end of the reign of Emperor Akihito and the succession of his son Crown Prince Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
But why do the Japanese name the Imperial era? And what is its significance?
The Genesis of the “gengo”
Japan houses the oldest continuing monarchy in the world, and a Japanese Imperial Era is the reigning period of an Emperor or the “era of an Emperor”. Following traditions, the Japanese name these eras, and with the end of an emperor’s reign comes the end of his era. This tradition of naming the eras has been acquired from Chinese Imperial practice. Emperor Kōtoku introduced this system in 645 CE with the first era name being “Taika”. Before the Meiji era (1868-1912), the naming practice was not regular and the names could be changed even before the reign came to an end.
Since the commencement of the modern period that is the Meiji period, Japan follows a regular practice of “one reign, one era name”. The four eras of modern Japan are – Meiji era (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926), Shōwa (1926-1989), and the current Heisei (1989-2019).
In the modern period, the Imperial era and its first year begin with the accession of the Emperor to the throne, and the year ends on December 31. Thereafter, the years follow the Gregorian calendar. For instance, the current era “Heisei” ends on April 30, 2019, when emperor Akihito steps down and the forthcoming era “Reiwa” will commence on May 01, 2019, so the year 2019 will be known both as “Heisei 31” and “Reiwa 1”. After the death of the emperor, he is posthumously referred to by the name of his era. For example, after the death of Emperor Hirohito, he came to be known as Emperor Shōwa. Traditionally the gengo should consist of two Chinese characters selected from ancient Chinese texts.
The cabinet is given the responsibility of selecting the name from a list of names suggested by experts and scholars. Further, the name should be unique and its first letter cannot be the same as its last four predecessors, it should be easy to read and write and should be ideal for the future generation. This whole process is a highly confidential one.
It will be the first time in over 2 centuries, that a Japanese Emperor (Akihito) abdicates his throne, on April 30, 2019 and with him the “Heisei” era will come to an end. The new era “Reiwa” will start when Naruhito, the 126th emperor of Japan, ascends the throne. In contrast to the usual practice of selecting from ancient Chinese texts, this time the characters of the names are derived from classical Japanese poetry “Manyoshu ”. This new name will now become a part of all the official documents, and the computer systems will be calibrated accordingly.