Defining Japan in just one word

Akihito abdicates in favour of his son Crown Prince Naruhito on May 1
Imagine coining the phrase “The Victorian era” or “The Mughal period” or “The Stone Age”. And then imagine how millions and millions of people on Planet Earth will use that phrase for years and years, and for generations after generations. Well, we are today in that unique cusp of history : On Monday, April 1, Japan will announce the era name that will be used for the new Emperor’s reign that begins on May 1 as the current Emperor Akihito abdicates in favour of his son Crown Prince Naruhito.

 

When in 1989, Emperor Akihito took the throne, the name given for the era under his reign was Heisei which is now in its 31st year. Before that, the Emperor's father, the war-time Emperor Hirohito held the throne for 62 years — an era that was named Showa. Every emperor's reign, or , has a name, which is used alongside the Western calendar to count the years. The naming of an era is somewhat similar to the naming of a newborn child. It will carry hopes and expectations. Dreams for the future of Japan.

 

The gengo name appears on coins, newspapers, driving licences and all official paperwork as a way of marking time. Under the system, which spans several centuries, 2019 is known as Heisei 31, or the 31st year of Akihito’s reign.

 

Eras, their names and their happenings, each have a distinct flavour. At the beginning of the Meiji (enlightened rule) era of 1868-1912 is therefore remembered as a period of western-inspired modernisation. The Showa (enlightened harmony) era, which began in 1926, is closely associated with Japan’s economic rise, but also with its role in the Second World War. So there are always mixed feelings when Showa is mentioned. The Heisei era too has its own set of imagery. Foremost of course what comes to mind is the end of the bubble economy. Also the loss of economic supremacy in Asia to China. And of course, there are memories of the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway and the disastrous earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents of March 2011.

 

The Era Name Act stipulates that a name must be written with two Chinese characters, it must have a positive meaning, and it must be easy to read and write, and not be a phrase that is commonly used. It is also unlikely to start with the first character of any of the last four eras: Heisei, Showa, Taisho and Meiji. Beyond that, the selection process is highly confidential. The process has been in progress for a year now. Expert panels have discussed, deliberated and debated many options and suggestions. Japan’s cabinet on Monday morning will most likely endorse the final recommended name. To guard against leaks, even cabinet members will reportedly hand over their phones and smart-watches before the meeting, and must stay in the decision-making room until the official proclamation is made. On Monday morning in Tokyo, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga will enter a room, pause, bow, gather his thoughts and then hold up a work of handwritten calligraphy — written in traditional sumi ink on decorated shikishi paper.  Millions of people across Japan will pause too and digest the meaning of the two kanji characters, and history would have been made.

 

Heiwa (peace) and Ankyu (peaceful and permanent) are potential candidates for the era name, but no one really knows.

 

Well, Monday morning will witness the historic revelation: The new era’s name will be a veritable “reset”. Japan will surely hope it will be a reset for new “hope”.



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