Japan Announces New Imperial Era Name in Preparation for Imminent Historic Succession
On Monday, Apr. 1, 2019, the Japanese government officially unveiled the new imperial era name (gengo) that will begin on May 1 when Crown Prince Naruhito succeeds his father, the current Emperor Akihito, to the Chrysanthemum Throne. During the reveal, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held up to a work of calligraphy showing the official new imperial era name Reiwa (令和), comprised of Chinese characters of “rei” (令), denoting “good” or “auspicious,” and “wa” (和), meaning “harmony” or “peace.”
The new era name will formally mark the end of Emperor Akihito’s reign, whose scheduled historic abdication on April 30 will end the current 31-year Heisei era. The formal start of preparations for his abdication was in August 2016, when Emperor Akihito made a televised address that signaled his intent to abdicate the throne due to his declining health and advanced age.
“The name Reiwa means that culture is born and grows when people come together and care for each other,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained in a press conference held after the announcement. The new era name was drawn from the Man’yōshū, a collection of some of the oldest Japanese poems dating to the late seventh to eighth centuries, which makes Reiwa the first of 248 era names to be derived from a native Japanese source. Previous era names were traditionally selected from Chinese classics in a practice going back as far as 1,300 years ago.
Since the reign of the Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912), Japan has adopted a “one emperor-one era name” system, with the era name becoming the posthumous appellation of the emperor who reigned during that era. Japan has since then had three emperors and three era names: Yoshihito, the Taisho Emperor (1912-1926); Hirohito, the Showa Emperor (1926-1989), and Akihito, the incumbent emperor of the present Heisei era.
Additionally, since the defeat of Japan in the Second World War and the divestment of political powers from the imperial family under the 1947 Constitution of Japan, the Emperor has no influence in choosing the era name. Rather, the Cabinet selects an era name from a list handpicked by scholars and bureaucrats.
The abdication date of April 30 was selected by the government so that the end of the Heisei era would happen after Emperor Akihito reached his 30th anniversary on the throne — a notable milestone — and businesses would face minimal disruption in the busy period of job transfers, promotions, and travel that comes with a new fiscal year, which starts on Apr. 1.
The Japanese government announced last October that May 1, the date of accession of the Crown Prince to the Chrysanthemum Throne, was to be designated a national holiday, thus setting upon an extended 10-day “Golden Week” holiday period. Slated to run from Apr. 27 to May 6, the holiday is poised to impact small businesses—some of which cannot afford to stay closed for the entirety of the extended period—and inconvenience many parents scheduled to work through the break without childcare support, with local governments scrambling for temporary relief measures.
However, following the Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga’s announcement, much of the public has shown positive reactions to the name change while companies have also scrambled to secure business and advertisement opportunities regarding the succession of the throne.
On Mar. 12, Emperor Akihito took part in a rite at the Imperial Palace to report his planned abdication to his ancestors, thus formally starting on the long list of ceremonial rituals leading up to abdication and succession. Events since include a visit to the Nara Prefecture mausoleum of Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s legendary first emperor, on Mar. 26; subsequent visits to the Grand Shrines of Ise in Mie Prefecture and the Tokyo mausoleum of Emperor Akihito’s father, Emperor Showa, to report abdication are scheduled for Apr. 18 and 23, respectively.
Upon his succession to the throne, Crown Prince Naruhito will report to his ancestors at a ceremony at the Imperial Palace on May 8; upon his formal enthronement and presentation to the public on Oct. 22, he will pray for peace and abundant harvests while making offerings to his ancestors in mid-November in the Daijosai “Great Thanksgiving Festival.”
Emperor Akihito, aged 85, will be the first emperor in over two centuries to abdicate the throne. The announcement of the era name Reiwa is also historic in that new era names in modern Japan have only been announced after the death of the reigning emperor. Given the historic succession of the Chrysanthemum Throne, it is not uncommon for many Japanese to reflect on the tumultuous three decades of the Heisei era — coming to an official close on Apr. 30 — and the future under the new Reiwa era.
“It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft,” reads the entry in the Man’yōshū that inspired the era name Reiwa. “The plum blossoms open - powder before a mirror; the orchids exhale - fragrance after a sachet.”