Japan unveils name of new era ahead of Naruhito reign

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the name Reiwa means that culture is born and nurtured as citizens 'beautifully care about each other'

Powered by automated translation

The name of the era of Japan's soon-to-be-emperor Naruhito will be "Reiwa", or beautiful harmony, the government announced on Monday.

Emperor Akihito is stepping down on April 30 – the first Japanese abdication in 200 years – bringing his era of "Heisei" – achieving peace – to an end. The new era takes effect on May 1.

The name draws upon Japan's 7th century poetry collection Manyoshu, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

Read more: Everything you need to know about Japan's eras

Mr Abe, who said the name's two letters were taken from a poem about blooming plum blossoms, said the era's title means that culture is born and nurtured as the people "beautifully care about each other".

The letters taken from the 1,200-year-old poetry book portrays “Japan's unique national identity, such as everlasting history, its fragrant culture and four seasons that bring beautiful nature and firmly hands them down to the next generation," Mr Abe said.

He said the government chose the name Reiwa "with hopes of making Japan a nation where every person can achieve dreams, like the plum flowers that bloom beautifully after the severe winter to signal the start of the spring.

"With this selection of a new era name, I renew my commitment to pioneer a new era that will be filled with hope," Mr Abe said.

Manyoshu is Japan's oldest poetry collection and symbolises the country's rich culture and long tradition. Mr Abe said that it was only appropriate that they chose the name from it.

The choice was a break from nearly 1,400 years of drawing era names, or "gengo," using Chinese classics and was kept strictly secret ahead of Monday's announcement.

"We hope [the era name] will be widely accepted by the people and deeply rooted as part of their daily lives," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in first announcing the name, written in two Chinese characters in black ink on a white background.

The announcement allows only a month before the switch of emperors for the system to adjust to an era that still affects many parts of Japan's society, even though the system is not compulsory and the emperor has no political power under Japan's post-war constitution.

Mr Abe appointed a panel of experts on classical Chinese and Japanese literature to nominate two to five names for officials from his ultra-conservative government to choose from. The names had to meet strict criteria, such as being easy to read and write but not commonly or previously used for an era name.

Japanese media scrambled to get scoops out of the new era name. Rumours included "Ankyu," which uses the same Chinese character as in Abe's family name.

There had been speculation that Abe's government, often hawkish on China matters, would choose the name from a Japanese document, breaking with the tradition of using Chinese classics as references.

The name selection procedure started in mid-March when Mr Suga asked a handful of unidentified scholars to discuss name options.

Several nominations were presented at a closed-door meeting that included nine experts from various areas, including Nobel Prize-winning stem-cell scientist Shinya Yamanaka and award-winning novelist Mariko Hayashi. They presented their views and narrowed the selection before final approval by the Cabinet.

Although a growing number of Japanese prefer the Western calendar over the Japanese system in a highly digitalised and globalised society, the era name is still widely used in government and business documents. Elders often use it to identify their generations.

Discussing and guessing new era names in advance was not considered a taboo this time because Emperor Akihito is abdicating. Era name changes are also a time for many Japanese to reflect on the outgoing and incoming periods.

Akihito's era of Heisei, which means "achieving peace," was the first without a war in Japan's modern history, but is also remembered for lost years of economic deflation and natural disasters.

Heisei was the first era name decided by the government and in which the emperor was stripped of political power. Still, the government, with its highly secretive and sensitive handling of the process, is underscoring that "the emperor has power in an invisible, subtle way," said Hirohito Suzuki, a Toyo University sociologist.

Era name changes are creating businesses for both the outgoing and the incoming. Anything dubbed "last of Heisei" attracts Akihito fans, while others are waiting to submit marriage certificates or filing other official registration until the new era starts. Analysts say the era change that expands the "golden week" holiday to 10 days on May 1 could boost tourism and other recreational spending.