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‘Reiwa’ moniker reflects a modern perspective

  • KYODO NEWS / ASSOCIATED PRESS / APRIL 1

    Kane Tanaka, 116, who is honored as the world’s oldest living person by Guinness World Records, poses with new era name “Reiwa,” made of chocolate, at a nursing home in Fukuoka. Tanaka was born in the Meiji era and will soon experience a fifth era, starting on May 1.

TOKYO >> On April 1, in one of the final steps of initiating the nation’s first Imperial succession in three decades, Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, announced new Imperial era name of “Reiwa.”

Suga said the name was formulated based on the introduction to a set of poems from “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. The first character, “rei,” represents “auspicious,” while the second, “wa,” can be translated as “peace” or “harmony.”

The new era will be the 248th in the history of Japan. In modern times, each era has run the length of an emperor’s reign.

This is the first era for which the characters chosen were drawn from Japanese classical literature; prior era names, or “gengo,” used kanji from Chinese literature. The poem from which they are taken describes an ume Japanese plum flower in full bloom in early spring after surviving a cold winter.

The new era will start on May 1, when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, a day earlier. (Akihito’s abdication is the first of a sitting Japanese monarch in about 200 years.) The Reiwa Era will end the 30-year run of the Heisei (“achieving peace”) Era, which began Jan. 8, 1989. It was preceded by the Showa, Taisho and Meiji eras.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government chose the kanji characters “rei” and “wa” because they signify “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully.”

He pointed out that “Manyoshu,” which was compiled more than 1,200 years ago, contained poems by people of various social status, including emperors, warriors and ordinary farmers.

“I hope each and every one of the Japanese people can bloom their own magnificent flowers — this is the kind of Japan I had in my mind when I settled on the name Reiwa.”

Noting how today’s tech-savvy youth have the potential to “create a new movement” and break through the status quo in society, Abe said, “I hope the next era will see these people from a younger generation fulfill their potential as they move toward realizing their hopes and dreams.”

In a nation where gengo have long been cherished as a way of identifying a year — as in Heisei 31, which corresponds to 2019 in the current era — even in official documents and computer systems, its change has far-reaching practical implications. Municipality officials, computer engineers and calendar manufacturers, for example, have spent months preparing for the adjustments involved.

On April 1, Reiwa was approved by Abe’s Cabinet after undergoing scrutiny by a group from the business community, media and education industry, as well as chairpersons of the legislature. Private-sector representatives included novelist Mariko Hayashi; Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning researcher at Kyoto University; Itsuro Terada, former chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Ryoichi Ueda, chairman of public broadcaster NHK.

Yamanaka said he thinks of the new gengo as a combination of the new and old. The first-ever use of the kanji “rei” and the nostalgic touch evoked by “wa” — the same character that was used in Showa — makes it “perfectly befitting today’s Japan, which both cherishes tradition and strives to try out new things.”

The Manyoshu passage that inspired Reiwa was written by poet Otomo no Tabito as an introduction to 32 ume-themed poems penned by his poet friends. In the introduction, “rei” was used to refer to “reigetsu,” or “auspicious month,” while “wa” described the peaceful manner of an early spring breeze.

Having never been used before, the choice of “rei” came as a surprise for many.

Many Japanese people are unfamiliar with the use of “rei” to mean “auspicious.” The first phrase that comes to mind is likely “meirei,” which means an order or command from a supervisor.

In fact, “rei” has a history of being screened out in the past due to its authoritative implications, said Masaharu Mizukami, a professor of Chinese and Japanese literature at Chuo University.

In the twilight years of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1800s, he said, “Reitoku” was presented as a possible era name, only to elicit strenuous opposition from the Tokugawa-led government because the proposed gengo could have been read as “commanding Tokugawa,” he said.

But people shouldn’t focus too much on the meanings associated with a singular kanji, said Asao Kure, an associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University who is an expert on Imperial era names.

What’s more important is the classical text the gengo draws from and the complementary nature of the kanji.

“The new era name draws on text about nature, which is unlike the previous era names,” he said. “Past era names have usually posited specific political principles, but ‘Reiwa’ instead puts forth a new kind of social philosophy inspired by nature — one that aims to achieve harmony among individuals in the same way that harmony and balance is found in natural phenomena.

“I do feel that the new gengo is aligned with modern ways of thinking, in that it focuses more on harmonious relationships between individuals to create a diverse society, rather than putting forward a specific principle.”

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