Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Naming an era: Japan, Zeitgeist and China

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils Reiwa as the new era name at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, Japan, April 1.

Photo: Reuters

Japan’s current Heisei (achieving peace) era will end with Emperor Akihito’s abdication on April 30. His son, crown prince Naruhito, is to ascend the throne the following day. Having expressed his intention of abdication in a rare TV speech in 2016, the 85-year-old Akihito is to be the first emperor to step down in about 200 years in Japan.

On April 1, the new era name — Reiwa (beautiful harmony) — was revealed in advance of the abdication. This is to allow more of a buffer to prepare for the change, as the era name is widely used in documentation in Japan.

A panel of experts (including those with expertise in classical Chinese and Japanese literature) was appointed by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in mid-March. The panel nominated an era name meeting strict criteria: it was to be two kanji (Chinese characters) long, easy to read and write but not be in common use. The meaning and origin of the names must be provided, too. Neither should the new era name start with the first character of any of the last four eras — Heisei, Showa, Taisho and Meiji — in the interest of avoiding confusion.

Era name as Zeitgeist

For many Japanese, the era name is more than just a way of counting years, it also encapsulates the national Zeitgeist. Over time it will become closely associated with significant national events.

The Meiji (enlightened rule) era of 1868 to 1912 is remembered for the Western-inspired modernization that happened during this period. The collective memory of the Showa (enlightened harmony) era of 1926 to 1989 includes WWII and Japan’s rapid economic development. Ambivalent feelings are evoked by the following Heisei era, a period that saw the end of bubble economy, deteriorating relations with China, the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, and the tsunami and Fukushima meltdown triggered by the 2011 earthquake.

The era name, then, captures the national mood of the period, similar to a dynasty name, or the way “the ‘60s” evokes particular feelings or images, or how historians refer to Britain’s Victorian or Edwardian eras, tying the politics and culture of a period to a monarch.

Japan-China linguistic tensions

An era name is the regnal title used when numbering years in an emperor’s reign. The first era name was Jianyuan (140-135 BC) of Emperor Wu of Han in ancient China. Influenced by China, the kingdom of Silla on the Korean Peninsula adopted the era name system in the sixth century, Japan in the mid seventh century and Vietnam in the 10th century. Japan is the only country nowadays that retains the era calendar scheme.

Japan’s first era name was Taika, marking the great political change Taika reform of 645 AD. Up to the current period Heisei, the 247 era names all came from Chinese classics. Conservatives who support the Abe administration were keen to have a new era name that derives from the Japanese classics.

Reiwa has therefore become the first era name originating from the Japanese classics, and derives from Manyooshuu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, written between the 4th and 8th centuries. Back then Japan had not developed the syllabic hiragana and katakana scripts, so kanji were used to phonetically represent the Japanese sounds, in a system known as manyoogana. Visually Chinese, grammatically Japanese, manyoogana was the first writing system created by Japanese for their national expression.

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