Japan is one of the last nations in Asia to adhere to traditional era names, in addition to the modern Gregorian calendar, each having legal status. Since 1868, these era names have been tied to imperial reigns and become the formal name of the Emperor after death. In the past 151 years, there have been only four eras: Meiji (44 years in length), Taisho (14 years), Showa (64 years), and Heisei (30 years). On May 1, Japan will enter a new era, when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne upon the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito (the Heisei Emperor). This will be the first abdication for centuries in the world’s oldest continuous monarchy, and the Japanese Diet had to pass a special law in 2017 allowing for the current emperor to step down.
Yesterday, the Japanese government announced the name of the new era: “Reiwa.” The neologism is taken from a poem in the Manyoshu, the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, which dates back to around 760 CE. The name was created from several compound words in a line that reads: “It is now the choice month of early spring, the weather is fine, the wind is soft. The plum blossom opens . . . ”
There will probably be some competing translations of the era name (the AP, for example, translates it as “pursuing harmony”) until one catches on or the government decides on its own. “Beautiful harmony” is probably the most appealing, and it jibes with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s explanation yesterday of the government’s hope for the era, one in which “each person can achieve dreams.” However, the first kanji of the name, “rei” also means “order” or “command,” and the name gives a slightly austere impression, one of subdued power, on first hearing it.
Reiwa is notable, as well, for being the first reign name derived from native Japanese sources, in this case ancient literature. Until now, which essentially means the past one-thousand years or so, era names were taken from classical Chinese sources, which had the cachet in Japan that Latin had in the West until just a few decades ago. I doubt very many people would be surprised to hear that the Japanese government turned to a venerated Japanese poetry collection to create the next era name for the new Japanese emperor. Yet, given that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a conservative, whom many detractors would call a “nationalist,” his decision is being portrayed in some quarters as a political statement reflecting Japanese chauvinism and being dismissive of China, as well.
It is true that Sino-Japanese relations are near the worst they’ve been for decades, and that each country has a powerful, confident leader, who eyes the other warily. China is by far the greatest long-term strategic challenge for Japan, and China still fears Japan’s inherent strengths and new willingness under Abe to be more involved abroad in areas in Asia where China is seeking dominance. The two have jockeyed over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea for nearly a decade now, and Japan’s defense boost is tied directly to China’s relentless military modernization.
Yet to those who read some sort of nationalist, even revanchist cry in Japan’s new era name, there is less than meets the eye. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a name is just a name. It is surprising that Tokyo had not decided before now to plumb its own rich culture for the most public and intimate identification of its monarch. Japan’s new emperor will reign over a nation facing numerous problems, from a precipitous demographic decline to continued economic sluggishness, but one that also has shown resilience and strength in the face of its travails. Choosing a name derived from Japan’s literary past is not inherently a threat to peace in the present. Indeed, Japan’s continued pride in its culture may well provide a measure of confidence in dealing with contemporary challenges. That same confidence can give steadiness to foreign policy and help avoid overreaction or miscalculation. A Japan whose official era proclaims “beautiful harmony” may indeed be signaling its foreign policy preferences, as much as the type of society it wishes to be.