Greeting the New Era in Japan

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

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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.

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.”

*   *   *

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.

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).

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.

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.

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