Japan’s Next Imperial Era to Be Called ‘Reiwa,’ or ‘Auspicious Calm’

(Bloomberg) -- Japan named its next imperial era Reiwa, or roughly “auspicious calm,” as the nation prepared for a once-in-a-generation transition in the world’s oldest continuous monarchy, with a new emperor set to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne next month.

The unveiling of what had been a closely guarded secret is among the first steps toward the imperial succession. Emperor Akihito, 85, is preparing to step down at the end of the month, drawing the curtain on his three-decade reign. His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will replace him May 1, marking the beginning of the new era.

“The word ‘reiwa’ implies the people’s hearts coming together in beauty to create and develop culture,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. The characters are taken from a poem about plum blossoms in an eighth-century anthology known as the “Manyoshu,” or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.” In a statement issued to reporters, Abe expressed the hope that Japanese people’s lives would blossom like the flowers in the poem.

Although no official English translation of the two Chinese characters used in the name was immediately provided, many took them to mean “auspicious” and to “soothe” or “calm” in the context of ancient Japanese poetry. There were many ways to interpret the characters, with the first one generally used to convey “order” or “instruction.” The second character is often translated “harmony” and can also mean “Japanese.”

Thousands in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities crowded major urban centers to watch the name announcement on big-screen TVs. Meanwhile, the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia, or REIWA, found itself accidentally at the center of a lot of attention from Japan.

Era names are how Japan defines its history and the country is currently in the final weeks of Heisei, which can be translated as “achieving peace.” Drivers’ licenses, newspapers and a host of official documents mark years from the enthronement of the emperor, with 2019 currently referred to as the “31st year of Heisei.”

The era saw the bursting of Japan’s asset bubble and numerous natural disasters, including the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeast coast, prompted a nuclear disaster and left about 20,000 people dead or missing. Akihito and his wife Michiko visited survivors at shelters and were seen by many in Japan as helping a battered nation recover through their compassion.

Reiwa Begins

From May 1, Japan will be in the first year of Reiwa. The transition so far has been marked by an upbeat tone, unlike the somber atmosphere of the last succession in 1989, which took place after Emperor Hirohito died.

Akihito announced in 2016 that he wished to abdicate because he was concerned that his advancing years and deteriorating strength were making it difficult for him to fulfill his duties. He will be the first emperor to step down in about 200 years and a special law had to be passed to allow him to do so.

A panel including experts on the Japanese language and cultural tradition convened Monday for final consultations on the new era’s name. The name was then presented to lawmakers and revealed to the public by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in an event broadcast live by the country’s TV networks. After the announcement, the top five trending topics on Twitter in Japan all related to the choice of era name.

The epoch names have a history extending about 1,300 years. Here are the names and dates of Japan’s imperial eras since the country began its modernization drive in the mid-19th century:

EraEmperor Period
ReiwaNaruhito2019-
HeiseiAkihito1989-2019
ShowaHirohito1926-1989
TaishoYoshihito1912-1926
MeijiMutsuhito1868-1912

The names are usually in the form of two Chinese characters -- since Japan adopted the Chinese writing system centuries ago for use with its own language. The combination of characters was chosen with criteria including that it must be relatively easy to write, but not in common usage.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.