Japan’s government has said the official translation of the era name for its new emperor will be “Beautiful Harmony”, setting off confusion while offices rush to make changes before Crown Prince Naruhito takes the throne.
The era of “Reiwa” begins on May 1, a day after 85-year-old Emperor Akihito abdicates and hands the chrysanthemum throne to his elder son.
The cultural importance of the imperial family and the secretive naming process created a frenzy of attention for the announcement of the era name.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe said the name, composed of two Chinese characters, was taken for the first time from an ancient Japanese book instead of from Chinese classics.
He said it comes from a section about plum blossoms in Manyoshu, a poetry anthology from the 7th and 8th centuries, and suggests that “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together”.
Mr Abe did not say which of a range of meanings for each of the two Chinese characters applied to the era name.
Experts and media had a variety of interpretations, and initial reports generally settled on “pursuing harmony”. The first character can also mean order, rule, good or auspicious, while the second can mean peace, reconciliation or soft.
A Foreign Ministry official gave the official translation.
“Reiwa is best interpreted as ‘beautiful harmony’,” said Masaru Sato, the deputy consul-general and director of the Japan Information Centre in New York.
“Reiwa refers to the beauty of plum blossoms after a tough winter, and is taken to mean the beauty of people when they bring their hearts together to cultivate a culture.”
Discussion of the era name dominated Japanese newspapers and television talk shows, and stores began selling Reiwa goods.
A bakery in Tokyo sold cupcakes decorated with Reiwa toppings, and sweet bean cakes carrying Reiwa logos quickly sold out at a souvenir shop inside Japan’s parliament building.
Some bookstores set up Manyoshu sections, and many editions of the anthology were out of stock on Amazon. Department stores were planning to sell gold coins emblazoned with Reiwa.
The announcement gives the government, businesses and people a month to adjust to a change that affects many parts of Japanese society, although the emperor has no political power under Japan’s post-war constitution.
Era names are still widely used in government and business documents and on calendars. Many people use them to identify generations and historical periods.
Discussing an era change in advance was not considered a taboo this time because Akihito is abdicating, a highly unusual step.