Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

Chosen under intense secrecy, it's sparked a 10-day holiday, a new song, and even a minor crime wave. Learn the meaning behind Japan's new era name, and how people in Japan are responding. (Photo: Shutterstock)

There's Something About Reiwa: The Frenzy Over Japan's New Era

News   Posted on April 04, 2019 in emperor, imperial era, heisei, government, politics, imperial family, reiwa • By Jay Andrew Allen • Read Related Articles

Back in January, Alyssa Pearl Fusek wrote up a great piece on what would become one of the year's biggest events: the new Imperial Era name. As Alyssa wrote, with Emperor Akihito abdicating his throne this year, and Crown Prince Naruhito assuming the position of Emperor, the government of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had to decide on a new name for the Imperial Era - an older but still respected system for measuring the current year.

Dawn of a New Era: Why Japan's Calendars Will Change With the New Emperor
When Crown Prince Naruhito becomes Emperor this year, a new era will literally dawn in Japan. Alyssa Pearl Fusek explores the history of era names in Japan.

The selection process was run under intense secrecy. Experts who were called by Abe to serve on the committee had to hand over their cell phones and any other electronics equipment whenever they met. Speculation was rampant for months, with people making betting pools as to what the initial sound of the new era name would be. Teams of computer scientists used Big Data analytics to make their best educated guesses.

In the end, however, pretty much everyone was taken aback when Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide unveiled an option that no one had predicted: Reiwa (令和).

Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide holding a picture of the new Imperial Era name, Reiwa
Cabinet Secretary Suga Hideyoshi unveiling the new era name on live television. (Screenshot: Ni-Tere)

The Meaning of Reiwa - And The Also-Rans

As soon as the new era name was announced, it sparked a heated debate on Twitter among Japan-watchers over its meaning. The first character, 令, commonly carries a meaning of "following orders from above," and is most used in words such as 命令 (meirei, order) and 司令部 (shireibu, headquarters). Many people, both in and outside of Japan, instantly raised suspicions that Abe - a right-leaning nationalist who's passed most of his legislation by simply bulldozing over the objections of Japan's minority parties - had specifically selected Reiwa for its "authoritarian" implications.

(Personally, I think that's nonsense. However, as I argued on Twitter at the time, it was odd that Abe & Co. chose a name that opened it up to such obvious criticism.)

However, kanji (Chinese characters) often have multiple meanings. 令 is no exception. The characters were selected from one of Japan's oldest collection of poems, the Manyoshu (万葉集まんようしゅう), where it was used in the following poem (translation by Edwin Cranston):

It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft. The plum blossoms open--powder before a mirror; the orchids exhale--fragrance after a sachet.

In this case, 令 is used in the word 令月 (reigetsu), where its meaning is more along the lines of "good" or "excellent". 和, by contrast, typically can mean "peace" (平和 - heiwa; peace) or even "Japan" (和食 - washoku; Japanese food), but here, it is used in the expression 風和らぎ (kaze yawaragi), or "soft wind." (The fact that the full word was taken from two separate words across the span of a poem is part of what made it so hard to predict.)

The entire expression of Reiwa, taken when put in context of the poem, carries the sense of a renewal - a blossoming of flowers after a hard winter. As Prime Minister Abe Shinzo put it:


Like plum blossoms that blossom splendidly and signal the coming of spring after a harsh winter, it will allow each Japanese person with their hopes for the future to transmit our national character - its eternal history and richly redolent culture, its beautiful nature with its changing four seasons - to future generations, and make many flowers bloom to their fullest. It was with this desire for the Japan we wish to be that we decided on Reiwa.

(JP) Link: (Full Transcription) The New Era Name, Reiwa, Taken from the Manyoshu; PM Abe: "It Includes the Idea That 'With Everyone's Hearts Beautifully Pressed Together, Our Culture Will Grow'"

【全文書き起こし】新元号「令和」は万葉集から 安倍首相「『人々が美しく心を寄せ合う中で文化が生まれ育つ』という意味込めた」

Japan's Foreign Ministry later tried to cut off speculation around the era name's "real meaning" by announcing that the official English translation was "beautiful harmony." And, much to its credit, the administration also released an official Japanese Sign Language sign for the new era.

The selection of Reiwa is a departure from past era names, which were all drawn from Chinese classics. This is the first time that Japan explicitly sought to pull an imperial era name from its own literary history. "Reiwa" was the ultimate winner from a list of six candidates, which included: 広至 (kouji); 万和 (banna); 万保 (banpou); 英弘 (eikou), and 久化 (kyuuka).

The selection is drawing favorable reactions from Japan, with 73.7% of respondents to a Kyodo News Service poll reacting well to the selection. The announcement has also given a hug favorability boost to the Abe admin, which saw its favorability ratings spike by 9.5 points to 52.8% - its highest levels since April 2017.

(JP) Link: 73% Feel Good About Reiwa; Abe Cabinet's Support Sees Big 9.5-Point Rise: Kyodo Public Opinion Poll

「令和」を好感73% 内閣支持率は9.5ポイントの大幅増 共同世論調査 - 毎日新聞

Reiwa 1 and The 10-Day Holiday

With the name of the new era decided, Japan will now move forward with the official abdication of Akihito, and the ascension of Naruhito (a fairly elaborate and somewhat expensive process that's draw criticism from inside the country). May 1st, Ascension Day, will mark the official start of Reiwa.

The immediate upshot for most people in Japan is that most people are about to get one hell of a vacation.

The ascension of the new Emperor comes right at the tail end of the country's famous Golden Week, a series of national holidays that have traditionally meant a week-long vacation for most residences. However, the Abe admin officially declared Ascension Day a holiday. Additionally, according to Japan's Holiday Law, any day that comes between two national holidays must also itself be a day of rest. So this year's Golden Week works out as follows:

Day Reason for Holiday
April 27th Saturday
April 28th Sunday
April 29th Showa Day
April 30th In-Between Day
May 1st Ascension Day
May 2nd In-Between Day
May 3rd Anniversary of the Constitution
May 4th Saturday - Green Day
May 5th Sunday - Kid's Day
May 6th Compensatory Holiday


As a result, the country will basically have a large "Closed for Business" sign on its doors until May 7th. If you're in business and have important information to communicate to your Japanese colleagues, make sure to get it to them by April 26th!

(JP) Link: Why is 2019's Golden Week 10 Consecutive Days? The Holiday Law is the Reason! What Happens From 2020 On?

来年2019年のゴールデンウィークが10連休になりました。 4月27日(土)~5月6日(月)までの10日間。 いまから何

Reiwa Chocolates, and Even a Song

Post-announcement, Japan found itself in "Reiwa Fever." News programs were pretty much "All Reiwa, All The Time" in the two days following the announcement. "Reiwa sales" could be seen everywhere, and Reiwa merchandise was even starting to hit the streets.

Amidst all the hype, two pieces of news really stood out to me - one sweet, one corny. On the sweet side (figuratively and literally), 116-year-old Tanaka Kane, the world's oldest living person, received this large chocolate showing with the new era name, as a way to celebrate the fact that she's now managed to live through four successive imperial eras - Meiji, Taisho, Showa, and Heisei.

And on the corny side, we have Golden Bomber. The famous air band group, best known for its 2009 song Memeshikute (女々しくて; "effeminate"), apparently saw the opportunity to be known for more than one song and seized it. Within less than 48 hours, the group had written, put together, and performed their new song, "Reiwa," on NHK's show Utakon, in a production that can only be described as...well, see it for yourself and fill in your own blanks.

"Reiwa Debit Card Sagi": The Reiwa Crime Wave Has Already Started

The Reiwa announcement wasn't all songs and confections, however. It was also an opportunity for criminals to fleece people out of their hard-earned money.

I've written previously about various kinds of scams targeting primarily elderly people in Japan - such as the "Apo-den scam," in which a scammer impersonating a family's son attempts to convince someone to yank a bunch of cash from the bank, which the scammers then steal by breaking into the apartment. The introduction of the new era name provided scammers an opportunity to invent an entirely new form of deceit, in which they ring up elderly people and convince them that their debit cards are now "expired" due to the advent of Reiwa, and need to be turned in. The scammers then show up and confiscate both the card and the victim's PIN, and use both to withdraw as much cash as they can.

(JP) Link: Caution Needed on New Era Scams; Elderly Victims of "Cash Card Will Change with New Era"

改元詐欺にご用心 「新元号でキャッシュカード変わる」高齢者被害

At least five elderly women have fallen victim to the scam already.

It's sad to think that, in the lead-up to the era announcement, some people sat around tables in smoke-filled rooms and debated the best schemes they could deploy to take advantage over the ensuing confusion. No matter where you live, it seems, someone's always looking to make a quick buck at other peoples' expense.

Japan Will Give Reiwa Its True Meaning

Names are always ripe with meaning and open to interpretation. This is especially true with Japanese, a language with an extensive literary history that dates back to pre-Christian China. Officially, "Heisei" (平成) - the current era - was meant to symbolize "the establishment of people - inside and outside of Japan, in Heaven and on Earth." However, some took advantage of the alternate meanings of the kanji to sneer that it really meant "flat growth" - a reference to the Japanese economy's lackluster performance since the bubble of the 90's.

Ultimately, only 39.8% of respondents to a Kyodo poll said they viewed Heisei favorably. (19.9% viewed it unfavorably; 40.3% were undecided.) So how will people come to view Reiwa? Much of that will depend on how well the country's leaders can respond to the various challenges Japan faces, such as de-population, immigration, economic growth, health and welfare, and protecting the rights of women and minorities. And it will also depend on the new Emperor, Naruhito, and the type of symbol he becomes for his people.

In the end, no scanning of kanji etymology will give Reiwa its meaning. Only the people of Japan - and the passage of time - will tell us what Reiwa truly means.

I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.


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