Inside Story

What’s in a name?

The title of Japan’s new era looks like a subtle challenge to the new emperor

Hamish McDonald 10 April 2019 1226 words

Audience appeal: a newspaper employee in Tokyo hands out copies of a special edition announcing Reiwa as the name of the next imperial era. Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Alamy Live News

April is not the cruellest month in Japan. In fact, it’s an uplifting time, following a winter that seems to drag on and on, and coming before the sweltering summer.

Perhaps uniquely in the world, the national meteorological bureau issues maps showing a cherry blossom “front” moving northwards through the archipelago as buds burst open. Office juniors are sent to stake out territory in parks where convivial groups will gather after work, scoffing sake and snacks under lantern-lit pink canopies.

But this year April is also the month in which, after thirty years, Emperor Akihito vacates the Chrysanthemum Throne because of his failing health. In the first abdication in modern times, the eighty-five-year-old goes on the 30th and his son Naruhito is installed the following day.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government is carefully orchestrating the whole process. It wants to use the sense of a new era dawning to shake Japan out of the economic lassitude of its “lost decades.” And it wants to promote a political message attuned to Abe’s retro-nationalism: that a restored Japan of proud tradition and identity can move from the soft and permissive democracy created by the post-1945 Allied occupation to a more rigorous version of its own.

The clue came on 1 April when the government announced the name of the new emperor’s gengo, or era, which will appear on the date stamps of everything official, from train tickets to tax returns. The choice, Reiwa, is being spun in different directions depending on the audience.

Abe’s supporters are doing their best to make it sound benign. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, for example, in its English-language online portal Nikkei Asian Review, explained the two characters in the name as “auspicious” or “orderly” (rei) and “harmony” or “peace” (wa). Tetsuji Atsuji, a Kyoto University scholar of Chinese-origin characters, which are known as kanji, was quoted as saying the rei character “conveys an image of seasonality with the change in emperor as well as the joy of peace.”

This interpretation derives from the character’s source in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest surviving anthology of poetry. Dating from the period 600 to 759 AD, the collection celebrates Japan’s changing seasonal beauties.

Prime minister Abe echoes this version. By referring to the Manyoshu, he is trying to pass on Japanese heritage to the next generation. “I want Japan to proudly bloom like plum blossoms,” he says. “Plum blossoms bloom beautifully after a harsh winter as a sign of the arrival of spring.”

But Atsuji also points out that the Japanese character for rei is a stylised image of someone giving orders to a kneeling person. This obvious allusion is not lost on Japan’s liberals and supporters of the postwar order, many of whom “cringed” at the announcement, says Andrew Horvat, a Canadian journalist and scholar, long resident in Tokyo, who teaches intercultural studies at the Josai International University.

“This is Abe’s statist philosophy in a nutshell,” Horvat tells me. “Japan will be a peaceful country, but there will at first have to be order, and by that I mean both domestically with restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, and regionally, meaning beefed-up armed forces and an ‘in your face’ foreign policy toward both Koreas and the PRC [mainland China].”

Japan’s foreign ministry is now putting out the message that the choice of Reiwa has been “misunderstood” and that of course it means “harmonious peace.” But that is “a bit funny,” says Horvat. “Because if you want to avoid misunderstandings then why choose a character that is so likely to be ‘misunderstood,’ unless, of course, you wanted to have it both ways from the start.”

The decision to select the gengo from a Japanese rather than a classical Chinese work — a break with a tradition that extends back over the 1400 years since era names were introduced — is also pointed. “That should already tell you what the people in power these days think about their ‘shared cultural past’ with China,” Horvat says. “It was a message to Beijing that Japan is not China. Basically, the choice reflects a present diplomatic, or rather undiplomatic, choice.”

Even so, Japanese themselves may not respond positively to this signal. So far voters have resisted Abe’s plan to amend the postwar constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to operate more explicitly outside the self-defence role prescribed in the document’s famous Article 9.

Akihito’s own efforts to promote liberalism and openness within the constraints of his constitutional role have generated great affection among the Japanese public. From the start, he spoke to the public in ordinary language rather than the convoluted courtly style used by his father, Hirohito, who ruled for an unsurpassed sixty-eight years covering the invasion of China, the Pacific war and postwar reconstruction.

Akihito, whose consort Michiko was the first “commoner” in recent eras to marry a crown prince, made a point of referring to the emperor as a “symbol” of the Japanese nation, rather than a source of divine authority, as was expounded before 1945.

When a nationalist governor of Tokyo tried in 2005 to make it compulsory for public schools to fly the national flag and for their pupils to sing the national anthem, Akihito said these decisions should be left to individuals. Having often spoken of “standing close to the people,” he and Empress Michiko got down on their knees after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to talk to survivors huddled in evacuation centres. When he visited Palau in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the final battles in the Pacific war, he said he’d come to remember “all people” who had lost their lives, implicitly including US marines and local civilians as well as Japanese defenders.

On his travels, as he recalled in his farewell address in February this year, he met many people of Japanese descent who were integrated into foreign countries, and expressed the hope that the foreign workers who came to Japan as its workforce declined would be warmly welcomed into Japanese society.

But since the name of the new era was announced, conservative mainstream reports have associated Akihito’s Heisei (“peace everywhere”) reign not with those positive attributes but with the recent decades of deflation and population decline, ignoring how the seeds of these problems were sown in the speculation and economic rigidity of the last decades of his father’s Showa (“enlightened harmony”) era.

With Japan’s economy slowing again, the Reiwa era may be starting with less than stellar prospects. The fact that the slowdown mainly results from China’s growth contraction, abetted by the protectionism of Abe’s friend Donald Trump, emphasises the degree to which Japan depends on its Asian neighbour.

Emperors used to choose the gengo of their own reign. With the removal of powers under the postwar constitution that he subtly defended, Akihito was the first to have it chosen by the government and its selected scholars. Likewise, the new emperor, the fifty-nine-year-old Naruhito, had no say, and was only formally notified of the choice of Reiwa in person by Abe a week after it was made public.

It remains to be seen whether he and Crown Princess Masako, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated former diplomat who has suffered greatly from the stuffiness surrounding the imperial household, will continue Akihito’s quiet pushback against Abe’s illiberal tendencies.