An expert's view: Significance of era names in Japan

Japan is just days away from learning the name of its next Imperial era. When Emperor Akihito abdicates at the end of April it will bring an end to the current Heisei era. A day later... the accession of Crown Prince Naruhito will usher in a new one. We will learn the name of the new era when it's announced on April 1. NHK spoke with an expert on Japan's Imperial system and the importance of era names.

Japanese calendars often show Gengo as well as the western era

The era name, Gengo in Japanese, is used everywhere in Japanese daily life. You can find Gengo on calendars, newspapers, currency and more.
Professor Kenneth Ruoff of Portland University has studied Japan's Imperial system since the late 1980s. He says the use of Gengo serves as a reminder.

"On a daily basis, it's not something that the Japanese think too much about. But if they have to fill out any sort of official form, they have to use the reign name system and so that reminds them that Japan has a monarchy."

U.S. Expert on the Imperial household

Professor Ruoff says given the system's continued importance in society, the era name is also significant.

He says, "The era name is definitely part of Japanese identity. This is the system by which the Japanese are officially required to count years according to the reign name of any given Emperor. As a result of this, Japanese are reminded regularly, it's a sort of a soft form of nationalism."

Era name captures the future of Japan

Then Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi announced the name of the Heisei era at a news conference in January 1989.

The present era "Heisei" means achieving peace.
It was decided by the government based on terms in classical Chinese literature.
Now, the process of selecting a new name is underway,
the government officially asked scholars to consider multiple names and one will be decided on by the cabinet on April 1.

Professor Ruoff says, "I would imagine you know it's just incredibly difficult to get it down from apparently 100 choices at one point, they'll get it down to 10 and then to three. And apparently the cabinet will debate the final three choices and then it's just going to decide within about two hours."

An event like the Moon landing

Kenneth Ruoff, professor at Portland State University

The announcement will be a huge nationwide event. Professor Ruoff compares it to how Americans reacted to the moon landings.

When the moon landings happened, about 80% of Americans just stopped what they were doing and watched television, Ruoff said.

"This is not quite as much of a world event, but for the Japanese I think most of the Japanese will just stop what they're doing at that point and go watch the television announcement of the New name and then everybody will talk about it."