Japan prepares to enter new "Reiwa" era

It's been a long wait. The government finally revealed the name of Japan's coming Imperial era, "Reiwa," the newest gengo.

New era name "Reiwa"

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the new gengo, "Reiwa," at a media conference and held up a board with the characters written on it in Kanji characters.

The name was taken from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry.

It comes from a passage that can be translated as, "In early spring, the air is fresh and the wind is calm... the plum flowers are blooming like a beautiful woman applying white powder in front of the mirror, and the fragrance of the flowers are like that of robes scented with incense."

"Reiwa" is the first era name to include the character "rei." The second character, "wa," has been used 19 times so far. The names with this character include "Showa" and "Wado."

The Cabinet chose the name from a list of proposals made by experts. The government is refraining from disclosing the identities of the experts.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained to reporters the meaning of the new name and what inspired it. He said, "Culture is nurtured when people bring their hearts together in a beautiful way. 'Reiwa' has such meaning."

He says the name represents the hope that every Japanese person will achieve their aspirations just like a plum flower flourishes after a severe winter.

By taking the new name from ancient Japanese literature, he says he hopes the country's history, tradition, culture and nature will be handed down for generations to come.

What is “gengo”?

Gengo is the name of an Imperial era that forms the Japanese calendar. The Japanese typically use this system interchangeably with the Western calendar. For example, 2019 is known as Heisei 31, which marks the length in years of the current Emperor's reign.

The present law on gengo has only two requirements: The era name must be decided by the Cabinet, and it will only be changed when a new Emperor ascends the throne.

The era name consists of two kanji characters. It must meet several requirements: It must have a positive meaning that represents the ideals of the nation, it has to be easy to read and write, it must not have been used as an era name nor posthumous name of a former Emperor, and it cannot be a commonly used word or phrase.

It is also preferred that the first letter of a new era is different from that of recent era names, such as Meiji, Taisho, Showa or Heisei. This is to avoid confusion as the letter is widely used as an abbreviation. For example, “H31” stands for Heisei 31.

How does a new era start and end?

The start and the end of a gengo period follows certain events.

For example, the current Heisei era started on January 8, 1989, the day after the death of Emperor Showa. It will end on April 30, 2019, when the current Emperor abdicates.

In August 2016, Emperor Akihito made a surprising announcement for Japanese citizens, expressing an apparent wish to step down.

“I am already 80 years old, and fortunately I am now in good health. However, when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now," he said.

It is the first time in more than 200 years that a living Japanese Emperor hands over the throne.

What’s next?

Emperor Akihito's abdication ceremony will be held on April 30 at the Imperial Palace. The Emperor will deliver a speech -- his last official duty as the symbol of state.
The following day, on May 1, Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the throne. Three days later, Imperial family members will appear on the balcony of the palace. Emperor Naruhito will then give a public speech.

Another significant ceremony is scheduled for October 22. This is to proclaim the enthronement to people in Japan and around the world. The government will invite the leaders of almost every country in the world to the ceremony. Later that day, the Imperial couple will ride through Tokyo in an opencar motorcade.

In mid-November, the Emperor will offer freshly-harvested rice to the deities. He will also eat some of the rice as he prays for peace and an abundant harvest for the nation.

The last transition from Emperor Showa to Emperor Akihito was shrouded in grief as the country mourned the death of the Emperor. This time around, Japan is expected to be in a celebratory mood.