A New Era – Reiwa

Japanophiles are probably aware, but for the rest of the world it might come as news that the current emperor is going to step down in May. That means a change not only in Emperors, but also in the current era in Japan. The period during which the emperor rules has a name. You might have heard of the Meiji era, or the Meiji restoration, the period when Japan modernized. It was called the Meiji era because it was the Meiji Emperor in charge at the time.

The current emperor is the Heisei Emperor. So the era is the Heisei period. This year is 31. Believe it or not, when you fill out a form or application for anything from bill payments to bank accounts, you write the date as year 31 not 2019. My first experience with this kind of thinking was in classical western history class, when you’d read that so-and-so happened in the fourteenth year of the reign of King Whatsisname. Or it was five years after the Battle of Hastings. My first experience in modern life was when I lived in Taiwan, when the year was 78 (western calendar 1989). They started years when the Kuomintang took over from the Chinese Emperor in 1912.

All that aside, it’s a big deal here, not only because the new Emperor doesn’t have (and probably won’t have by the look of things) any male offspring. But that’s another story.

I’ve been contemplating the new era, it’s naming, and what it means. First, what is the new name? It’s called Reiwa. The explanation you’ll get from the Abe administration is that it means auspicious harmony. Kind of like you hear about almost any kanji on a college kid’s tattoo.

It comes from two Chinese characters, kanji, that need a bit of explanation. The second one is easy, wa. It means peace or harmony. You hear wa a lot in JP. This is a society built on consensus. The group is important. The individual is not. You might have heard about the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” That is still pretty true today (while it’s not nearly as strong as when I first came in the end of the bubble years). You might have also heard about it in You Gotta Have Wa, a book I recommend not only about Japan, but also baseball, or perhaps you should think of it as a book about Japanese baseball. Because, all appearances aside, American baseball and Japanese baseball are very different things.

Rei is another story. In the vernacular it means an order or command. It’s not really a standalone word like wa is. It’s usually used in conjunction with another kanji. So meirei means literally “command.” Or shirei means “instruction.” That’s what most people would think when seeing rei. In this case, however (aren’t there always exceptions that have no relations to the original word?) it means just good or nice. Apparently, if you put the word rei before month then it means a month of good fortune. How about them apples?

OK, auspicious harmony it is.

What seems to be a big deal, or how some would have us think, is that the naming of the era doesn’t come from a classical Chinese quote. All eras before had. Reiwa comes from the Manyoshu, which is a collection of poems from the 8th century. Prime Minister Abe would like the world to believe that it represents a Japan that is establishing a new identity. This is a far step from nationalism, but certainly in sync with the administration’s leanings.

If it was indeed intended that way, then he hasn’t quite achieved his goal. The Manyoshu is largely written in kanbun, or kanji only. It is very close to classical Chinese. Reiwa itself is written in kanji, still pronounced in the Chinese-ish way (most kanji can be pronounced in the purely Japanese way, but also the semi-Chinese way). Despite the “Japanese” origin, the two characters are still Chinese, in form, pronunciation, and in meaning.

Still, it is a new beginning, a new era, with a new emperor. And since next year will be year one, maybe it’ll be a little easier to remember when filling in application forms.


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