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