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Japan reveals new imperial era name

Retiring Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign has been called Heisei.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the name of new era, Reiwa (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the name of new era, Reiwa (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

The name of the era of Japan’s soon-to-be-emperor Naruhito will be “Reiwa”, the government has announced.

Reiwa will follow Emperor Naruhito, after his May 1 investiture, for the duration of his rule — and beyond, becoming his official name after death.

An era name is an inextricable part of public life and shared memory in Japan.

A lot of what happens in the years to come — births, deaths, natural disasters, cultural and social phenomena, election glory and political scandal — will be connected to the new era name.

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Shinzo Abe speaks as the name of new era, Reiwa, is on display at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

As such, the closing days of the current Heisei era, which is what retiring Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign has been called, have inspired a collective bout of nostalgia and soul-searching as many Japanese reflect on both Heisei and this new block of years linked to Reiwa that will loom over a huge part of their lives.

TV quiz shows tested contestants’ Heisei knowledge.

Special dolls were made to mimic the moment when Chief Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga appeared before cameras on Monday to reveal a card with calligraphy of the name Reiwa on it.

A high-end Tokyo restaurant has even unveiled a wagyu burger to commemorate the era change.

Reiwa was the choice of a top-secret committee that pored over ancient documents to find what they considered to be the perfect two characters to describe the next several decades.

The process, like the imperial system itself, is opaque, vaguely mysterious and steeped in ritual and bureaucracy.

What they settled on, however — Reiwa — will affect everything from calendars to train tickets to computer software to government documents, creating a windfall for printers and programmers, even as they give a name to Japan’s foreseeable future.

“The era names carry this weight with them; they have this sense of defining a period,” said Daniel Sneider, a Japan expert and lecturer at Stanford University.

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The name of the era of Japan’s soon-to-be-emperor Naruhito will be Reiwa (Kyodo News/AP)

As Heisei ends, “everything is imbued with this extra meaning. It is the last cherry blossom season of the Heisei era. And I’m sure it will be true when the next era begins: It will be the first of everything during this next imperial era,” said Mr Sneider, who has been visiting and living in Japan off and on since 1954.

“Japanese life is filled with these combinations of tradition and modernity that some people used to find irritating … but this insistence on sticking to tradition is what distinguishes Japan from other societies.”

Heisei, meanwhile, saw a decades-long economic slump, a crumbling of lifetime employment, and an easing of constitutional military constraints.

“A lot of things have changed in the last 30 years, things that would have been hard to imagine” at the beginning of the Heisei era, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.

It’s only natural, he said, that the country tries to put the closing of the era in context.

“In all nations, there are certain rituals of identity and belonging and nationalism that are important to people, and the emperor is a symbol of who (the Japanese) are as a people,” he said. “Particularly when you’re facing troubled times, that becomes even more important.”

PA

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