Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Japan unveils name of new era ahead of Naruhito reign

Prime Minister Abe reveals the name Reiwa means that culture is born and nurtured as the people "beautifully care about each other."

The name of the era of Japan's soon-to-be-emperor Naruhito will be "Reiwa", or beautiful harmony, the government announced on Monday.

Emperor Akihito is stepping down on April 30 – the first abdication in 200 years – bringing his era of "Heisei" – achieving peace – to an end. The new era takes effect on May 1.

The name draws from Japan's seventh-century poetry collection 'Manyoshu', Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after the announcement by the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga.

Read more: Everything you need to know about Japan's eras

Mr Abe, who said the two letters were taken from a poem about blooming plum blossoms, said the era name means that culture is born and nurtured as the people "beautifully care about each other."

The letters taken from the 1,200-year-old Japanese poetry book portrays “Japan's unique national identity, such as everlasting history, its fragrant culture and four seasons that bring beautiful nature and firmly hands them down to the next generation," Mr Abe said. He said the government chose the name Reiwa "with hopes of making Japan a nation where every person can achieve dreams, like the plum flowers that bloom beautifully after the severe winter to signal the start of the spring.

"With this selection of a new era name, I renew my commitment to pioneer a new era that will be filled with hope," Mr Abe said.

"Manyoshu" is Japan's oldest poetry collection and symbolises Japan's rich culture and long tradition and Mr Abe added it was only appropriate the choose the name from it.

The choice was a break from nearly 1,400 years of drawing era names, or "gengo," using Chinese classics. It was kept strictly secret ahead of Monday's announcement. Mr Abe said choosing the name from the purely Japanese book that symbolises the country's Japan's rich culture and tradition is only appropriate.

"We hope [the era name] will be widely accepted by the people and deeply rooted as part of their daily lives," Mr Suga told reporters in first announcing the name, written in two Chinese characters in black ink calligraphy on a white background.

The announcement allows only a month ahead of the switch of emperors for the system to adjust to an era that still affects many parts of Japan's society, even though the system is not compulsory and the emperor has no political power under Japan's post-war constitution.

Mr Abe had appointed a panel of experts on classical Chinese and Japanese literature to nominate two to five names for officials from his ultra-conservative government to choose from. The names had to meet strict criteria, being easy to read and write but not commonly or previously used for an era name.

Japanese media scrambled to get scoops out of a new era name. Rumours included "Ankyu," which uses the same Chinese character as in Abe's family name.

There had been speculation that Abe's ultra-conservative government, often hawkish on China matters, would choose the name from a Japanese document, breaking with the tradition of using Chinese classics as references.

The name selection procedure started in mid-March when Mr Suga asked a handful of unidentified scholars to discuss name options.

Several nominations were presented at a closed-door meeting that included nine experts from various areas, including Nobel Prize-winning stem-cell scientist Shinya Yamanaka and award-winning novelist Mariko Hayashi. They presented their views and narrowed the selection before final approval by the Cabinet.

While a growing number of Japanese prefer the Western calendar over the Japanese system in a highly digitalised and globalised society, the era name is still widely used in government and business documents. Elders often use it to identify their generations.

Discussing and guessing new era names in advance was not considered a taboo this time because Akihito is abdicating. Era name changes are also a time for many Japanese to reflect on the outgoing and incoming periods.

Akihito's era of Heisei, which means "achieving peace," was the first without a war in Japan's modern history, but is also remembered for lost years of economic deflation and natural disasters.

Heisei was the first era name decided by the government and in which the emperor was stripped of political power. Still, the government, with its highly secretive and sensitive handling of the process, is underscoring that "the emperor has power in an invisible, subtle way," said Hirohito Suzuki, a Toyo University sociologist.

Era name changes are creating businesses for both the outgoing and the incoming. Anything dubbed "last of Heisei" attracts Akihito fans, while others are waiting to submit marriage certificates or filing other official registration until the new era starts. Analysts say the era change that expands the "golden week" holiday to 10 days on May 1 could buoy tourism and other recreational spending.

Updated: April 3, 2019 10:30 AM