The Abe Era? Japan's New Imperial Name Could Give Nod to Premier

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already expected to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister later this year. Could his name live on through an entire generation?

By a coincidence of timing and tradition, a character from the prime minister’s surname is being discussed as a contender to describe the new era when Emperor Akihito’s son, Naruhito, ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1. The name is a closely guarded secret and will be formally announced April 1, kicking off the country’s first imperial succession in more than three decades.

“Peace” has been an enduring theme of era names over the centuries, with the current epoch dubbed Heisei, which can be translated as “achieving peace” and the prior one called Showa, or “enlightened harmony.” The first Chinese character of Abe’s surname -- 安 -- is pronounced as “yasu” or “an” and similarly connotes peace and stability.

The Abe Era? Japan's New Imperial Name Could Give Nod to Premier

Still, using the character in the era name could be politically awkward for Abe in tradition-conscious Japan, where the emperor is viewed as above politics. Any appearance that Abe was capitalizing on the process to burnish his own legacy could raise questions about whether he was overstepping his bounds as he prepares to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November.

The name is based on a concept proposed by the top spokesman for Abe’s government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and then reviewed by a panel of experts and the speakers of both houses of parliament, which Abe’s party controls. The cabinet gives final approval.

Eras are how Japan defines its history, so drivers’ licenses, newspapers and a host of official documents mark years by it, with 2019 currently referred to as the “31st year of Heisei.” The 安 character has been used 17 times for epoch names over the past 1,300 years, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Twitter has introduced a feature allowing users to pick their own era name and tweet it out as a news headline. According to the site, 安 was the most popular Chinese character picked by users, followed by “和” which means harmony and is read as “wa” and “永”, which means eternal and is read as “ei.” Other users offered less serious options, including “coffee” and “grilled meat.” An online poll by Sony Life last year put 安 in second place.

An aquarium in Shizuoka prefecture even has a sea lion practicing writing the character from Abe’s name in preparation for a March 21 performance marking the new era. Of the five practice names selected from internet and newspaper speculation, three use the 安 character, according to an aquarium spokesman.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.