REIWA: A New Era is Dawning in the Land of the Rising Sun
As the reign of Emperor Akihito comes to its historic close, the Land of the Rising Sun has unveiled the name of the new chapter yet to come. A placard with a calligraphic print of the characters “Rei” and “Wa” was shown to the awaiting public by Yoshihide Suga, the present Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan. Officially, this symbolizes that the name for Crown Prince Naruhito’s rule was chosen to be “Reiwa”, which translates to “Orderly Harmony”, or “Orderly Peace”. The announcement came a month before the end of the Heisei era – the gengō (era name) of Emperor Akihito.
After succeeding his father, Emperor Shōwa, Akihito is the first to step aside in the world’s oldest monarchy since Emperor Kōkaku’s abdication in 1817. The Japanese public has long been informed since August 2016 through a rare communication by the Majesty himself. In a pre-recorded video address, Akihito shared his concerns on matters related to his health. “As I am now more than 80 years old and there are times when I feel various constraints such as in my physical fitness, in the last few years I have started to reflect on my years as the Emperor, and contemplate on my role and my duties as the Emperor in the days to come,” he informed Japan.
This has been taken by the public as an implication of stepping down, although at the time of address, the retirement of an Emperor was not defined by the laws of Japan.
It was then later announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the parliament has allowed the Emperor to step down in abdication through a one-off bill. This was decided by the Imperial Household Council (Kōshitsu Kaigi), a ten-member panel in-charge to review and approve statutory matters about the Imperial Family. The first to step down the throne after 200 years, Emperor Akihito will descend the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, 2019.
THE MEANING OF REIWA FOR THE JAPAN OF TOMORROW
Reiwa (令和), the gengo for the rule of the 126th Emperor of Japan was derived from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. Translating to mean the “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”, Reiwa is set to be the first gengo lifted from ancient Japanese text, as earlier names were taken from Chinese literature. The guidelines in the selection of the gengo require that the period name emanate the ideals and the ways of the nation. It must also only consist of two kanji characters that are easy to write, easy to read. No kanji character must be used twice.
The first character, 令 (rei), stands for command or order, whilst the second one, 和 (wa), represents harmony or peace. Combined together, Reiwa (令和) implies a meaning of an order that is in harmony, or “Orderly Peace”.
Not long after the announcement, Prime Minister Abe explained the thought and the significance of the name of the new era. “With this selection of a new era name, I renew my commitment to pioneer a new era that will be filled with hope,” Abe affirmed.
The poem where Reiwa (令和) was lifted from speaks of the sacred ume flowers found in Japan. The original text tells and describes an ume flower blooming beautifully in the first moments of springtime, after surviving the wrath of a cold winter. In English, it translates loosely to read:
“On a moonlit night in early spring; the air is fresh and the breeze is calm; plum blossoms are blooming like a beautiful woman applying powder in front of a mirror; the fragrance of orchids are like that of robes scented with incense.”
The ume flowers, fragrant and pure, are known in the English language as the plum blossom – a blossom that signifies regeneration, renewed strength, and the coming of spring. “After a cold winter, spring comes. Like beautiful plum blossoms, the Japanese people, with hope for tomorrow in their hearts, can each make flowers bloom,” Abe expanded.
Aside from seeing the imperial transition as a fresh start, Reiwa (令和) also signifies the intent and the passion to bring and introduce the longstanding traditions of Japan into the new period. Abe stressed that even though Japan is continuously changing and evolving, the Japanese should never forget about their important philosophies and values. “We believe this national character should be passed along to the next era.”
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CULTURE AND TRADITION: THE SYMBOLIC ERAS OF MODERN JAPAN
Since the rise of postwar Japan, the Land of the Origin of the Sun has seen the names of four eras: Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) and Emperor Akihito’s gengo – Heisei. The names are symbolically important not just to the nation, but to the generations of the Japanese population as a whole.
Aside from appearing on newspapers and coins of general circulation, the gengo is likened to the collective spirit of the Japanese in the time of the reigning Emperor. It serves as the root of the philosophy to be imbibed and conjured when a mention of the era arises, together with the particular period’s momentous events.
MEIJI ERA (1868-1912)
The current gengo system of “issei ichigen”, or “one emperor, one era”, started in the Meiji period. A significant political turning point in Japan, this era also saw the Meiji Restoration after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and ultimately, the entire system of the shogun. The Restoration is the political and social revolution which reinstated the emperor as the nation’s central monarch. This governing power was returned to Emperor Mutsuhito – posthumously known as Emperor Meiji.
Moreover, the era is also marked by the modernization that entered Japan in waves. Industrialization drove the country to have massive increases in both construction and production, igniting Japan’s rise and emergence as a global power. As selected by Mutsuhito, the meaning of the Meiji literally translates as “Enlightened Rule” – a fitting name to the country’s rebirth.
HEISEI ERA (1989-2019)
Under the abdicating Emperor Akihito, the period of the Heisei in Japan has been in motion for the last three decades. Taken from two separate Chinese books in history and philosophy, the roots of Heisei translate to “peace” and “to become”. This thereby gives the period a direct meaning of “Achieving Peace – an epithet befitting Japan after the horrors of the war-stricken period of Shōwa. Heisei will be the first period without a war in the history of modern Japan. However, the retiring era saw a series of economic downfalls and disastrous natural phenomena.
Throughout the Heisei, Japan was hit by many disasters and tragedies that left the population at lost for words. Aside from the deadly eruption of Mount Unzen in 1991, two earthquakes shook the country – first with the Great Hanshin Earthquake which destroyed the city of Kobe in 1995, and second with the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Akihito’s reign also saw the terrorist Subway Sarin chemical attack of the Aum Shinrikyo which claimed 13 lives.
THE REIWA ERA OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUM THRONE
The Heisei is dusking, and the era of Reiwa dawns. The announcement of the gengo of the upcoming reign of Naruhito sparks deep recollection and nostalgia amongst the Japanese. Although the strength of imperial power seems to be slowly dimming and fading, the unfolding of the Reiwa, of its name, and of its meaning, echo the very nature and character of the period yet to come. Reiwa is a box of harmonized possibilities – capable of starting afresh and beginning anew, without forgetting what has been.
“When with the first month comes the spring,
Thus breaking sprays of plum-blossoms,
We’ll taste pleasure to the full.”
By Ki, the Secretary
(A Translation lifted from The Manyoshu: The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems by Donald Keene)
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