Japan has a new emperor and a new era. But what does it mean, in 2019, to live in a different time from the rest of the world? A very personal exploration

  • Martin Dusinberre

    Martin Dusinberre lehrt seit 2015 Global­geschichte mit Schwerpunkt Asien an der Universität Zürich.

Histo­rians no less than poli­ti­cians love to speak of new eras: every change of govern­ment, diplo­matic reset, welfare reform, educa­tion inno­va­tion or envi­ron­mental roll-out has the poten­tial to be labelled as novel, decisi­vely so. But as I write these words, on the morning of 1 May in the bust­ling western city of Fukuoka, people in Japan have lite­rally woken up to a new era. The flags are out, the rain has cleared, and a new emperor is on the Chrysanthemum. 

Foto: Martin Dusinberre

The feeling, a former teacher tells me over break­fast, is of New Year: he is in a good mood (ii kibun). But we have no idea how to greet each other on this historic day, for modern Japan has no prece­dent for an impe­rial tran­si­tion that doesn’t involve the death of a monarch. New Year’s gree­tings seem odd when the cherry blos­soms have already been and gone—and, besides, our words should indi­cate some­thing longer than a mere year. “HAPPY NEW ERA” (in English) is the sugges­tion of a major elec­tro­nics store down the road. Or, chan­nelling the spirit of yesterday’s midnight crowds in Tokyo, their umbrellas bobbing, their chan­ting remi­nis­cent of the “U-S-A!” heard at sports events or poli­tical rallies in America, we could conceiv­ably stand and yell at each other, over our miso soup and pickles, “Rei-Wa! Rei-Wa!”

What happened last night, deep in the precincts of the Impe­rial Palace, is at one level utterly unim­portant: an elderly man relin­quished his posi­tion of symbolic leader­ship to his son. The world survived. “I don’t really think anything of it” (nani mo omowanai) is a refrain I have heard a surpri­sing amount during my month-long stay in Japan—surprising because it’s not what much of the media, nor Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, would have you believe. (Abe said, on 1 April: “[Era names] support the spiri­tual unity of the Japa­nese people.”)

But at another level, the tran­si­tion from year 31 in the era of Heisei (“achie­ving peace”) to the foun­da­tional year of Reiwa (“beau­tiful harmony”) is important in terms of under­stan­ding how Japa­nese people think about their pasts. Ask anyone of my age when their parents were born, and they’ll unhe­si­ta­tingly answer in impe­rial units—my father in Shōwa 16 and my mother in Shōwa 23, for example (Shōwa trans­lates as “enligh­tened peace”). Ask about the decade of the Shōwa 30s, and most people will give you the popular image of a nation on the cusp of the so-called postwar miracle—a decade of urban rege­ne­ra­tion, of elec­tric fridges in the kitchen, of fami­lies gathe­ring to watch the Tokyo Olym­pics on their new black-and-white tele­vi­sions in 1964 (Shōwa 39). 

This is diffe­rent from the units of time with which the vast majo­rity of Euro­peans or North Ameri­cans speak about the past. Nobody I know in Britain frames their personal histo­ries accor­ding to parti­cular decades in the reign of Eliza­beth II, for example. The “Eliza­be­than 30s”, if you will, were basi­cally the 1980s—a temporal unit not unique to Britain. What was unique to Britain during this decade was the That­cher admi­nis­tra­tion; but to say that you are “a child of That­cher” is a more overtly poli­tical statement—either posi­tive or negative—than to say you are a child of the Shōwa era. It is even possible, as someone in Tokyo told me, to be an oppo­nent of the emperor system and yet proud that Japan’s impe­rial eras mark its time as being “diffe­rent to the outside world.” 

In ways that exceed its offi­cial legal status, ther­e­fore, the impe­rial calendar matters to many Japa­nese. Moreover, to ask how people have greeted the new era is to raise a ques­tion perti­nent to under­stan­ding diver­gent inter­pre­ta­tions of the “global” in contem­po­rary history: at a personal level, in terms of histo­rical memo­ries, as an act of trans­la­tion, and as a snapshot of how history is made, what does it mean to live in time diffe­rent to the outside world?

*   *   *

“What do you think of Reiwa?” I ask one of my father-in-law’s neigh­bours, a woman in her early-seventies. She laughs. “I’m third gene­ra­tion! Shōwa, then Heisei, now Reiwa.” She pauses, stan­ding in the quiet main street of a town whose popu­la­tion was burs­ting at the seams in the Shōwa twen­ties, when she was born. “But that’ll surely be it for me.”

*   *   *

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As Heisei has drawn to a close, I have asked friends and acquain­tances across Japan to tell me what the era meant to them. Some, unbidden, have talked about History. “I remember the death of the Emperor Shōwa,” said one woman in her forties. “That was also the year the Berlin Wall fell.” Others talked about the period’s natural disasters—Heisei seemingly bookended by massive earth­quakes in 1995 and 2011—or the shock of the Tokyo subway gas attacks in 1995, or, most common of all, the burs­ting of the postwar economic bubble in 1990, just as Emperor Akihito formally ascended the throne. Indeed, Japan’s economic decline, so prono­unced in its shrin­king regions, hangs over Heisei, argu­ably defi­ning the period as a whole. 

Nach dem Tod von Kai­ser Hiro­hi­to wird 1989 im Fern­se­hen wird der Name der neu­en Ära bekannt­ge­ge­ben: Heisei; Quelle: asienspiegel.ch

A few friends spoke about what Heisei meant for them perso­nally. “I joined my current company in the foun­da­tional year of Heisei (Heisei gannen),” a 53-year-old busi­nessman told me. “My life as a full member of society has coin­cided with His Majesty’s reign.” The change to a new era, for him, is ther­e­fore a chance to reflect on the intert­wi­ning of national and indi­vi­dual histo­ries (history with the upper­case “H” and the lower). He used fushime (節目) to describe his sense of a new phase in both his and the nation’s life, the word’s first character evoking the chan­ging of the seasons or the modu­la­tion of a melody. Another man, in his mid-forties, described the new era as a “punc­tua­tion point,” (kugiri), a pause for breath in the longer narra­tive of his life.

For me, Heisei will always be Heisei 10. This was when I first came to live in Japan, a move which irre­vo­cably changed my life. Some­what more munda­nely, the short phrase the year Heisei ten was a hell of a lot easier to under­stand, for a Japa­nese learner trying to iden­tify indi­vi­dual drops in the rain­cloud of incom­pre­hen­sion, than the compa­ra­tively prolix the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight. 

*   *   *

“My niece was actually born on January 7, the day the Emperor Shōwa passed away,” the busi­nessman recalls. “My paternal grand­fa­ther, who was born in Meiji, suggested we make her offi­cial date of birth a diffe­rent day. He felt it inap­pro­priate that the baby might be thought of as a rein­car­na­tion of His Majesty.” 

*   *   * 

Japan’s impe­rial time grows out of a prac­tice that was for centu­ries common to the Sinos­phere. In China, the beating intellec­tual, cultural and poli­tical heart of East Asia, time changed at the order of the Son of Heaven. An era would be founded not only at His (rarely Her) death or abdi­ca­tion, but also at auspicious—or inauspicious—times in the sexa­genary calendar, or at moments when the Realm under Heaven had suffered natural disas­ters, poli­tical uphe­aval, epide­mics or poor harvests (to name just a few reasons for time to be restarted). The Japa­nese polity first adopted the prac­tice in the seventh century, in a period when the influence of Tang dynastic rule perme­ated many aspects of govern­mental and ritual life, and it has continued more or less unbroken to this day. 

In modern Japa­nese history, undoub­tedly the most signi­fi­cant impe­rial tran­si­tion occurred in the late-1860s, when rebel forces from western Japan over­threw the Toku­gawa shog­u­nate and “restored” (their term) power to the young Emperor Mutsu­hito, then sixteen. My stay in Tokyo coin­cides with a wonderful exhi­bi­tion of sati­rical prints from the period at the Inter­na­tional Chris­tian Univer­sity. Drawn for the consump­tion of ordi­nary Edo resi­dents (Edokko), the prints uniformly depict the emperor as a chubby boy carried on the shoulders, or in the arms, of the rebel domains. It’s hardly a respectful iconography—although it’s nothing on the image that attri­butes the victory of the western domains over the shog­u­nate to their supe­rior farting power. 

One of the final prints in the exhi­bi­tion depicts (or claims to: it was composed before the actual event) the impe­rial proces­sion as the boy emperor came to take up resi­dence in his new “Eastern Capital.” This renaming of Edo to “Tō-kyō”, and the emperor’s entry into the city in November 1868, were two of many symbolic trans­for­ma­tions that heralded the over­throw of the Toku­gawa. Another was the new era name, announced in October 1868: Meiji, meaning “bright rule.” Edo’s sati­rists went to town on this, too, inver­ting both the order of the Chinese charac­ters and the way they could be read to pun, “Read from above it may mean bright rule, but read from below, it means ungo­verned by anyone.” 

Even as they “restored” the emperor, however, the Meiji bureau­crats inno­vated. From 1868 onwards, there would be only one era name per reign. This was a stark contrast to Emperor Meiji’s father, Kōmei, who had no fewer than seven era names during the tumul­tuous period of his reign (1846-1867). And impe­rial abdi­ca­tion was also banned—until Emperor Akihito chal­lenged the law with an unex­pec­tedly poli­tical inter­ven­tion in the summer of Heisei 28 (2016).

 *   *   *

A colle­ague shows me around Waseda Univer­sity in Tokyo. “When was this block built?” I ask. “1945,” she says. “So soon after the war?” I’m a bit surprised. “No, wait,” she says, rethin­king her act of trans­la­tion. “I mean 1970. Sorry, I was thin­king Shōwa 45.”

 *   *   *

 There is a story in the media that when the Crown Prince and emperor desi­gnate, Naru­hito, was informed that his upco­ming reign would be given the era name “Reiwa”, he responded with a nod and said, “I under­stand.” Which is just as well, because the rest of us didn’t have a clue. 

My first thought, upon waking up to the announce­ment on 1 April, was to reco­g­nise Reiwa’s first character from the word meirei, meaning “command.” “Command” (, rei) followed by “harmony” (, wa) is a philo­sophy I bring to paren­ting, with very little prac­tical success (thus far). But although I am defi­ni­tely no philo­lo­gist, I was appar­ently not the only one to jump to a wrong conclu­sion. Accor­ding to a report in the English-language Japan Times from 3 April, Japan’s Foreign Ministry had to clarify that rei in fact had nothing to do with “order” or “command”, as foreig­ners had mista­kenly assumed, but rather should be trans­lated as “beau­tiful.” For, accor­ding to best tradi­tion, the era name is lifted from a passage in some ancient lite­rary text, the meaning of which is usually beyond the ordi­nary man and woman on the street (not to speak of foreigner). Herein lies the poten­tial for misinterpretations.

Except that the choice of “Reiwa” did not follow best tradi­tion. As the admi­nis­tra­tion of Prime Minister Abe made very clear, Reiwa broke new ground in being drawn not from an ancient Chinese lite­rary text, as had all other Japa­nese era names to date, but from a Japa­nese classic. In this case it was the Man’yōshū, the oldest and most cele­brated antho­logy of Japa­nese poems coll­ected from the eighth century onwards, in parti­cular a verse which reads:


Shoshun no reigetsu ni shite, ki yoku kaze yawaragi

In an auspi­cious month in early spring, the air is fresh and the breeze is calm

The verse referred to a spring gathe­ring in western Japan—very close to Fukuoka, in fact—and the cele­bra­tion of the plum blossoms.

While Abe and others were quick to promote the overall inter­pre­ta­tion of “beauty”, which by pure coin­ci­dence aligns with his long-held evoca­tion of a “beau­tiful country”, experts were less sure. Some pointed out that the only known time in the past when rei had been in the running for a new era name was in 1864. Emperor Kōmei, it is said, parti­cu­larly liked “Rei-Toku”, but the shog­u­nate rejected it because it implied that the emperor was “comman­ding” the “Toku­gawa”. (In other words, the character rei was indeed previously considered to have the nuance of “command” or “admo­nish­ment”.) Other experts observed that despite all the postu­ring about the Japa­nese origins of the era name, the section of the Man’yōshū from which it was cited was in fact written in clas­sical Chinese—the lingua franca of East Asian elites until the late-nineteenth century. Indeed, Reiwa actually appears in an earlier Chinese text, the Wen Xuan (Selec­tions of Refined Literature). 

Foto: Martin Dusinberre

The point is this: the choice of Reiwa tells us very little about Japa­nese lite­ra­ture in the eighth century—when in fact the concept of “Japan” was argu­ably more imagined than real. Instead, it tells us ever­y­thing about the Japa­nese establishment’s imagi­na­tion of its place in the twenty-first century world: its insis­tence on peace (even as Abe pledges to reform the “no war” clause in the current consti­tu­tion); its desire to diffe­ren­tiate itself from China; its keen­ness to proclaim the unity of Japa­nese culture; its message to a younger gene­ra­tion of citi­zens to promote Japan to the outside world. Ironi­cally, the emperor himself seems secon­dary to these concerns. 

To histo­rians of Meiji Japan (1868-1912), some of this feels stran­gely fami­liar. Indeed, over the last weeks, as obscure debates about the Chinese clas­sics, appro­priate trans­la­tions, and the new times have swirled, I have had, for the first time, a small feeling of how it perhaps felt actually to live in Meiji Japan.  

*   *   *

“It’s been a pain in the ass, to be honest,” one man says. “I’ve had to re-date every single work docu­ment with the charac­ters Reiwa gannen [the foun­da­tional year of Reiwa], which most programmes auto­cor­rect nume­ri­cally to Reiwa 1, and then I have to manu­ally over­ride back to ‘gannen’.” Another friend takes his driving licence from his wallet. It expires in Heisei 32. “But there will never be a Heisei 32,” he muses. “So does that mean it’s valid forever?” 

*   *   *

Fukuoka is decked in new era regalia. There are Rising Sun flags wherever you look. One banner cele­brates the foun­da­tional year of Reiwa, noting that this is also the 2,679th year of the impe­rial calendar—that is, since the supposed estab­lish­ment of the Japa­nese nation (660 BCE). And from the sublime to the ridi­cu­lous: there are adver­ti­se­ments for Reiwa-embossed candy, for Reiwa lunch specials, for the idea of cele­bra­ting Reiwa by buying just a few more elec­tronic appli­ances. Even crimi­nals have got in on the act, making phone calls to the vulnerable elderly to collect full credit card infor­ma­tion on the pretext—untrue—that the era change will require the reis­su­ance of said cards. 

Mean­while, in the caver­nous under­ground shop­ping centre at Tenjin, there are multiple signs announ­cing the “GWフェア”—that is, the “Golden Week Fair”, to mark the unpre­ce­dented ten conse­cu­tive days of national holiday that the govern­ment has bequea­thed (commanded?) to its citi­zens. As if from an Italian Renais­sance pain­ting, a woman on the left side of the sign grasps an outsized ice-cream cone, while, on the right, a pious-looking man holds the calli­graphy for “Reiwa”. It is an icono­graphy to bewilder even those of us fami­liar with East Asian uses of the Euro­pean past.

Foto: Martin Dusinberre

Subli­mity and ridi­cu­lous­ness notwi­th­stan­ding, these are all important signs for histo­rians. For the previous month has been a micro­cosm of how history is made—through the over­ri­ding of language, through commer­cia­lism no less than conten­tious uses of the past, through indi­vi­duals trying to bind their own lives into bigger narra­tives of society and the state. Their legal status notwi­th­stan­ding, era names may well be incre­asingly obso­lete in modern Japan, as the digi­tized world demands adhe­rence to the Grego­rian calendar; but they still provide a temporal grid onto which both ordi­nary citi­zens and govern­ment elites project their pasts, pres­ents and futures. In a globa­lized world, for example, it is perhaps useful to be reminded that for some people, the year 1989 in Japan was not, prima­rily, about the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in this strange tran­si­tional month in mid-2019, the govern­ment has been busy direc­ting the citizenry’s atten­tion as much to the temporal impli­ca­tions of an eighth-century poem from western Japan as to the global jamboree that will be Tokyo 2020. If histo­rians are to take the call for “global” history seriously, we must pay greater heed to under­stan­ding these local arti­cu­la­tions of diver­gent temporal regimes. Japan need not be the end point for such work, but the ways in which Japa­nese people have greeted their new era is surely one useful point of departure.

Foto: Martin Dusinberre

After our good-mood break­fast, I notice a gathe­ring in a nearby park. There are banners from the Japa­nese Commu­nist Party—perhaps for an anti-imperial demons­tra­tion, I assume. But when we get there, we see that it is a public meeting to cele­brate the workers. Of course! For this is not just May 1 of Reiwa gannen, it is also May Day across the world—a reminder of other time regimes layered into the history of the contemporary. 

A man takes to the micro­phone. “Good morning, ever­yone,” he begins.

Japan, 1-4 May 2019