Michaeline: Reiwa is Coming (A New Era in Japan)

This Wednesday, on May 1, Japan will see the old emperor abdicate in favor of his son, ushering in a new era called Reiwa.

令和

“It’s a new era” is more than a turn of phrase. The Japanese use the Gregorian calendar (we’re currently in 2019 as I write this), but they also have their own method of counting the years. Right now, we’re in the Heisei Era, and my first visit to Japan coincided with the change from Showa to Heisei.

Emperor and Empress dressed in traditional wedding clothes 1959

The future Emperor Akihito with his bride, the future Empress Michiko, dressed in traditionally for their wedding in 1959. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The old emperor didn’t abdicate on January 7, 1989; he died. The nation was in mourning, and the New Year’s festivities were muted. I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but I remember the black bands of mourning fluttering over all the Japanese flags, and the pervasive sadness and uncertainty. It wasn’t a sudden death, except in the moment that it happened. They knew the changeover was coming, only like all mortals, they couldn’t predict the day or minute.

This time around, people plan to celebrate the turnover. No emperors will be harmed during this accession (knock wood). The Golden Week Holidays are traditionally a time of extended vacation – often two four- or five-day weekends in a row. The powers-that-be have decided to extend that holiday to a full ten days. Some people don’t know what to do with so much free time; others booked their tickets as soon as rumors of the switch-over began whirling around. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have ten days, free and clear, and it’s kind of amazing.

The era name itself was decided by a committee, and there have been mixed feelings about it. One feeling is of sad nostalgia that it’s not going to be Heisei anymore. People in Japan don’t like change any better than people in any other country, and although Heisei had its ups and downs, it was not a bad era. Japan was under a peace constitution for all of it, for starters. And people maintained their standards of living, or even increased them, for the most part. It was an era that brought us the Internet, and solar farms, and increasing trade with the world.

Suga holds a beautifully calligraphy of Reiwa

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announcing the new era’s name on April 1, 2019. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Who knows what will happen in Reiwa? The kanji characters for Reiwa are officially explained as “beautiful harmony” but the characters themselves have a lot of different meanings, and carry baggage with them. For the first time, the two characters chosen for the era name come from a Japanese source, not a Chinese source. The original material is an introduction for poems about plum blossoms, the first fruity blossoms of spring. According to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, (Mainichi Shimbun) Reiwa was selected “in the hope that Japan will be a country where each Japanese person can achieve success with hopes for the future like plum flowers that bloom brilliantly after the severe cold.”

Implying that Heisei was “severely cold” is such a 2000-teen thing to say. All over the world, people are trying to “Make America Great Again” or bring back an independent Britain. So, there’s that.

The kanji themselves, as I said before, carry a lot of baggage. Most of us Japanese-as-a-second-language learners learned it as “command” first, and one of the school teachers that I work with said that was his first impression, too. Are we ordering peace through authoritarianism? Or are we going back to a more Confucian ideal, that order in the universe is beautiful and harmonious? (Let’s not forget, Confucian ideals were pretty crappy for women. And there were reasons why even men abandoned them for something new. Order is pretty great, especially if you are on the top of the heap.)

Add two little drops, and it means cold, like the “rei” in reitoko (freezer) or reizoko (refrigerator). I spent April 1, when the new era name was announced, in a chilly auditorium, watching my youngest enter university officially. So, that’s where my mind went.

Crown Prince Naruhito; his wife the Crown Princess Masako and their daughter, Princess Aiko.

(From the middle, to the right) The Crown Prince Naruhito; his wife, the Crown Princesss Masako; and their daughter, Princess Aiko. Princess Aiko is not in line for the throne; her uncle and male cousin are. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

But, “wa” can also mean peace. And that is admirable.

Officially, according to the Mainichi Shimbun, “the character for ‘rei’ appears in the phrase ‘reigetsu’ meaning ‘auspicious month’, while the one for ‘wa’, which can also be read as ‘yawaragu’ comes from the phrase ‘kaze yawaragu’ – a reference to ‘gentle’ wind.”

Of course, wind has all of its own connotations in Japanese culture – the not-so-gentle divine wind that turned back Mongolian invaders, for example.

When it comes right down to it, though, the name doesn’t make the era. The people living in the era make the era. So, with a era name with so many meanings and nuances, we can pretty much make what we will out of it.

Kanji (also known as Chinese characters) for Reiwa, the new Japanese era that begins May 1. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Kanji (also known as Chinese characters) for Reiwa, the new Japanese era that begins May 1. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

PART II: So, what’s all this doing on a writing blog? Well, many of us write fantasy and paranormal romance. Have you ever thought about naming your eras? Here’s some real-life ground rules that you can follow (or not) at your discretion. Again, from Mainichi Shimbun: “six criteria: its meaning is an appropriate ideal for the Japanese public; it is comprised of two kanji characters; it is easy to write; it is easy to read; it has never been used as an era name or a posthumous name of an emperor; and it is not a commonly used word.”

So the Century of the Fruit Bat? Great. (Except, Terry Pratchett already used it, so only as an homage.) The 12th Year of Bird? Not so good. Xxilbikl 14? Ugh, no.

Choosing an era name for your story can guide your writing choices. You don’t need to include it in the book if it turns out to be unnecessary for the plot. But it can still help you stick to a theme.

*The Japan Times is a respected English-language newspaper in Japan. The Mainichi Shimbun is a Japanese-language newspaper with an English-language website.

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: Reiwa is Coming (A New Era in Japan)

  1. Interesting, Michaeline! I had no idea about any of this. Thanks for the insight. I don’t write fantasy, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t necessarily have my characters name an era. This gives me some ideas!

    • (-: I think I’ve seen characters name their eras, which is an adorable and funny quirk (usually). Something like two characters talking about A’s love life: “Oh, I remember in the Bobby Era. You couldn’t get her off the phone for two minutes, and she insisted dressing like a Goth.” “Bobby was in a punk band.” “Bobby was a self-centered jerk. The Bobby Era is over. Thank all the little bitty kittens for that.”

  2. Wow, that is all incredibly complex. It’s fascinating to consider how societies come up with all these rules, and to realize most Japanese people probably don’t think twice about it, as they have absorbed it as part of their culture since birth. It’s also why anthropologists can spend years observing a culture and not quite getting it, which led to some really unfortunate (and sometimes racist) ethnography in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks for the ‘insider’ anthropology lesson today!

    • I’d guess the whole naming thing is kind of like the electoral college in the States (only older). It’s awkward in this day and age, and it doesn’t work perfectly, but it satisfies some itches that the national psyche experiences.

      (-: In the computer age, it’s particularly a whole basket of hassle! However, this time, people were given a firm start day. I’ve never seen this said directly, but I think an unspoken nightmare has been, what if the aged emperor died before his official abdication? I think at this point (April 28th), we’ve entered the holidays, so the whole system can just cruise on vacation mode until May 1 — there’d just be an extra long period with no official emperor.

      But if something terrible happened three months ago? On a purely selfish level, think of all the vacations that would have been disrupted by losing those one-time-only holidays.

      Oh well, so far, so good. I hope the emperor emeritus can enjoy his retirement for a good, long time.

  3. Very interesting, Michaeline, and good food for thought. Thank you! My editor and my critique-partner-in-chief (Jeanne) both say I should add more fantastic elements to Christal’s WIP. That story involves a five-hundred year-old dynasty with some important step-changes. I should give serious thought to naming eras.

    Here in the UK we changed the law recently (2013) to “make succession to the crown not dependent on gender.” Under our rules, Princess Aiko would be in line for the throne. Do you imagine a similar change might in the future be enacted in Japan?

    • Some people are asking to make succession a non-patriarchal thing, and Japan has had royal empresses in the past (IIRC, back when the real power was invested in the throne; not during the era when the throne was basically a tool of the warrior/nobility class). A huge thing is that it’s really hard for royals to get married.

      Empress Michiko was a wealthy commoner; Wikipedia says that the assumption in the 1950s was that the Imperial Household Agency would choose a wife from the former noble families. When I was in college, a professor gossiped that the Crown Prince really wanted to marry a Thai princess, but the Imperial Household Agency put the kibosh on that, so he married a Japanese “commoner” — who was educated at Harvard, so not exactly common.

      When the royal family marries out, they give up their royalty and become commoners, which just narrows the pool of potential emperors.

      This is just me, but I get the feeling that the Crown Prince may feel satisfied that his descendants are out of the whole mess, and will not need to follow the Imperial Household Agency rules once they marry and become commoners. IDK, that might just be my writer’s imagination talking.

      At any rate, there are a bunch of conservatives who are simply shocked that women should be considered to be . . . whatever the Japanese head of the monarchy is. I wanted to say “titular heads of Japan”, but I think according to the post-war constitution, the Emperor is defined quite differently. “The symbol of the State and the unity of the people.”

      I’m pretty sure some aren’t happy the Emperor is an ichthyologist (fish researcher), but fortunately, he was allowed to pursue some interests on his own. And also to marry his lovely bride.

      Things could change, but that would mean that somebody has to take a stand and shame the rest into taking action. (IMO)

      Really rich stuff for fiction writers writing about royalty, though.

  4. What everyone else said–this is fascinating!

    It made me think about my own life, which is divided into 4 separate eras–childhood/marriage #1 (to my daughter’s father),/marriage #2 (to he who shall remain nameless/ and marriage #3, to Old Dog for the past 22 years come June. And each Jeanne feels like she sprang directly from childhood, like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure stories with different outcomes.

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