New 'Reiwa' Era Puts Japan In 'Reset Mode,' Scholar Says09:49
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A woman holds a copy of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reporting the name of new era “Reiwa," unveiled in Tokyo, Monday, April 1, 2019. (Koji Sasahara/AP)
A woman holds a copy of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reporting the name of new era “Reiwa," unveiled in Tokyo, Monday, April 1, 2019. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

It's the end of an era in Japan, as Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne next month and Crown Prince Naruhito assumes the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, ushering in the new “Reiwa” era.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary revealed the name of the country’s next imperial era on Monday, unveiling a board with two kanji characters written on it, which, despite controversy over their true meaning, roughly translate to "peace" or "harmony."

The emperor figure is unique to Japan, according to Toshihiro Nakayama, a Japan fellow at the Wilson Center. No other country uses it, even in East Asia. The system offers citizens a “very symbolic existence.”

“It shows the continuity and the feeling of affinity and the fact that we are a community,” Nakayama tells Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd. “But it doesn't have a political role whatsoever.

“It's banned by the constitution for the emperor to have any political role. So, the actual sort of impact is kind of difficult to measure, but as a symbolic figure, [the] emperor is always important, and the change of the emperor is of course very important.”

Each emperor would have his own era, and each era would have its own name. “It tells you where you were born and what kind of life you've experienced,” says Nakayama. The present era, Heisei, which spans about three decades, has been defined by many challenges: a sluggish economy, an aging population, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Many view the Reiwa era as a fresh start.

“I don't think it's going to have a direct impact on the economy or politics or the issues that we're facing. But it's a sense that this era and the times that we're living [in are] going to be on a reset mode,” Nakayama says. “That psychological and symbolic significance is much more important than the actual [significance].”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of the emperor system and the corresponding eras

“It's [a] very important part of Japanese people's lives. For instance, when we write our birthdays in our official document, we would often use this era. So, like myself, I was born in Shōwa. That's the period before Heisei, which is right now. I was born in Shōwa 42. So, it's [a] really important part of people's daily lives.

“It's not efficient. In some way[s], it's very inefficient, because we kind of get confused where we are. But still, like I said, it shows you that you're part of this bigger community, and you kind of know where you're at in history.

“Shōwa is from 1926 to 1989 — it's a long period. … When I say I was born in Shōwa 42, clearly it was after World War II, and that was a period when Japan was surging. So, the era of Shōwa sort of symbolizes a very dynamic [period], and at least the latter part of it has a positive connotation.

“But the era after Shōwa, which is Heisei, there was a sort of a burst of economy. People were talking about Japan surging, maybe even overpassing the U.S. It was clearly a euphoria, but back in the 1980s, we thought we were a very strong economy, maybe overconfident about it, but the economy sort of burst. ... It was a very difficult and stagnating era.”

"Japan is in a soul-searching phase right now: the economy burst; other countries in the region are rising; we have some domestic issues. So, we wanted to anchor ... how we see the future in our traditional, old Japanese poems."

Toshihiro Nakayama

On the controversy behind the Reiwa name

“When people speculate what kind of Chinese characters they would use, what kind of pronunciation or sound it would have, and when it came out, we weren't quite sure what it was, and there were some, many speculations, because these Chinese characters [have] various meaning[s] to it. It's not like one Chinese character has one meaning — it has various meanings. And when it came out, some [were] critical of the [Shinzō] Abe administration.

“He's known to be a rather conservative politician, and people speculate what Prime Minister Abe's intention was, and this Chinese character Reiwa has a meaning that you order things and that it's law and order, … not necessarily militaristic, but more of [an] order that is very structured. But that was not the intention of the prime minister and the people who chose this term. …

“I think we should understand [the] prime minister's word at face value. The meaning that the prime minister and his team wanted to infuse is beautiful harmony. It has a calm feeling to it, and I can understand, because ... Heisei was a difficult period for Japan, and if we look into the future, we see China's rise. East Asia is a very difficult region, so we would want a calmer region. I think that was kind of the intention that Prime Minister Abe had, not just looking at what's happening around the region, but also within. … So, the prime minister's wish wasn't to infuse his own idea or anything, but to sort of portray a desirable era for the coming 10, 20 years.”

On how the name Reiwa originated from a work of ancient Japanese poetry, not from Chinese literature, where the names for Japan’s eras usually come from

“It's something new. … We are used to choosing this term from a Chinese, traditional, ancient text, but this time around, it was the first time, and there were some other candidates as well. I believe there were six altogether, and some of them were from Chinese texts, but the one that the team chose was one from the Japanese traditional text, and I can understand.

“Japan is in a soul-searching phase right now: the economy burst; other countries in the region are rising; we have some domestic issues. So, we wanted to anchor our feeling and how we see the future in our traditional, old Japanese poems, and I think that's quite natural. Some people I understand would see nationalism in there, but I don't think that was the case.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtJackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 5, 2019.

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Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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Jackson Cote Twitter Digital Producer
Jackson Cote is a freelance digital producer for WBUR and Here & Now.

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