Japan, we’re reminded, is a very different place from the rest of the world.
As somebody who spent more than six years of his adult life in Japan and still has many friends there, I do my best to stay abreast with Japanese current affairs. Most of the time, Japanese news is refreshingly boring — mostly economic updates, the occasional minor political controversy, and ongoing debates about immigration, educational reform, and other typical first-world country stuff.
And then there’s the occasional only-in-Japan news story that fills me with natsukashisa (nostalgia, except more so) for the country I once considered a second home. Such was the case this past week when the Japanese government announced the country’s new gengo (era name) that will coincide with the ascension of a new emperor on May 1, 2019.
What followed was an explosion of social media debate in Japan over the ins and outs of the new name, ranging from delightful musings on its ancient poetic origins to zany conspiracy theories about Prime Minister Abe trying to conceal his name in the characters. Truly this is a news story that could only come out of one country on earth.
The gengo calendar system, for those unfamiliar with it, coexists in Japan together with the Gregorian calendar. With since the dawn of the Meiji (明治) period in 1868, which saw Japan re-engage with the outside world and embark on breakneck modernization, the coronation of a new emperor has brought about a new epochal name, which have served as handy historical markers for modern Japanese history. Japan’s historical epochs, to day, have run thusly:
- Jōmon period (縄文時代 Jōmon jidai), pre-300 BCE
- Yayoi period (弥生時代 Yayoi jidai), roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE
- Kofun period (古墳時代 Kofun jidai), 300–538
- Asuka period (飛鳥時代 Asuka jidai), 538–710
- Nara period (奈良時代 Nara jidai), 710–794
- Heian period (平安時代 Heian jidai), 794–1185
- Kamakura period (鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai), 1185–1333
- Kenmu Restoration (建武の新政 Kenmu no shinsei), 1333–1336
- Muromachi period (室町時代 Muromachi jidai), 1336–1573
- Azuchi–Momoyama period (安土桃山時代 Azuchi–Momoyama jidai), 1573–1600
- Edo period (江戸時代 Edo jidai) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代), 1603–1868
- Meiji period (明治時代 Meiji-jidai), 1868–1912
- Taishō period (大正時代 Taishō jidai), 1912–1926
- Shōwa period (昭和時代 Shōwa jidai), 1926–1989
- Heisei period (平成時代 Heisei jidai), 1989–2019
- Reiwa period (令和時代 Reiwa jidai), 2019–present
Japan is often described, by Japanese and foreigners alike, as a “Galapagos country” — a nation where everything is just a little bit different. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to the country’s imperial house. Superficially Japan’s constitutional monarchy resembles that of the United Kingdom as a polity nominally ruled by an emperor with no real political power but with deep social and cultural sway. But unlike the British monarchy, which in modern times has consistently engaged in a public relations push and pull with the country’s citizens, Japan’s imperial household remains a remote, wraithlike presence in Japanese society. While its individual members are occasionally batted around by the press, the institution as a whole continues to exist largely outside public scrutiny and away from the prying eyes of the media. It is, it seems, a nation unto itself.
Much of this no doubt has to do with the Yamato Dynasty’s problematic modern history with respect to the Second World War, the invasion and occupation of China, Korea, and other Asian countries, and countless wartime atrocities. It is still a matter of some debate among historians how culpable Crown Prince (and soon-to-be-emperor) Naruhito’s grandfather was in the prosecution of the Pacific War and the parade of violent conquests on the Asian mainland that preceded it, and the issue remains far from resolved. The Shōwa (昭和) era, which marks Emperor Hirohito’s 1926–1989 reign and translates to “period of enlightened peace/harmony”, remains something of a “nothing-to-see-here” historical marker that painfully sidesteps the carnage and chaos that characterized most of the first two decades of the late emperor’s reign. (Japanese historians generally split the Shōwa period into “early Shōwa” and “late Shōwa” to differentiate between the nice and not-nice bits of this imperial reign.)
Of course, the Chrysanthemum Throne is an ancient institution, and one that, for the lion’s share of its history, has played a much more symbolic role than the one Hirohito’s grandfather Mutsuhito (the Meiji Emperor) envisaged, which was much more akin to Europe’s muscular monarchs (think Frederick the Great or Tsar Nicholas II) than the tradition of Japan’s cloistered emperors. For over two and a half centuries preceding the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s emperors had had no real political power at all under the Tokugawa (Edo) Shogunate, which saw real political power exercised in the future capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) with the imperial household kept in mothballs in Kyoto as a sort of patriotic prop. Prior to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ascendancy in 1603, it’s debatable how much real power the emperor truly enjoyed, but certainly it was never the sort of absolutism that the far-right super-patriots of early-20th-century Japan envisioned.
So what, to be blunt, is the point of the Japanese monarchy? If you to ask the average Japanese, the answer would probably be a slightly muddy notion of embodying Japanese culture and providing a link to an ancient past. While a small, aggrieved coterie of old-school Marxists still clings to the dream of Japan abolishing the monarchy and becoming a republic, it’s not an ambition shared by the vast majority of Japanese. Simply put, today’s calligraphy-drawing, tree-pruning, tea ceremony-performing royals are far too cute and inoffensive to get all up in arms about. Like Hello Kitty or Pikachu, the Imperial family seems to exist as a symbol of Japanese-ness. No longer considered official deities on earth, they are now relegated to the role of mascots, albeit ones that hearken to a deep and mysterious past to which the Japanese people still cling on a deep, emotional level.
For me, as a scholar and fan of all things Japanese, I would hate to see the world’s longest uninterrupted royal dynasty abolished. It’s so utterly fascinating, and on the odd occasion that they do something really cool like come up with a new epochal name like reiwa, it serves as a reminder of why Japan is such a fascinatingly different place. That said, I truly believe the soon-to-be Reiwa Emperor could really use this dawn of a new era as an opportunity to inspire some much needed change — both on the part of the Imperial House and the country as a whole.
What’s in a name?
The name Reiwa (令和) was selected by a panel of scholars. Several names were proposed but rejected, and the selection of reiwa was, at least in part, a nod to digital technology. As several of the proposed names were also names of common Japanese words or proper names, the experts felt they were liable to cause problems in texting and word processing — Japanese software automatically offers selections of kanji (Chinese characters) triggered by specific phonetic sounds, and in a language as replete with homonyms as Japanese is, this can get confusing.
Reiwa, by contrast, has no contemporary homonyms in the Japanese language, making it a digital device-friendly moniker.
The name reiwa is also notable inasmuch as it’s the first gengo to feature the character rei (令) as well as the first to be derived from purely Japanese literary sources, as opposed to Chinese sources. In his public announcement of the name, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained that it was plucked from a poem about plum blossoms in the Manyoshu, a seventh-to-eighth-century collection, and evokes a “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.”
The rei character, which on its own is pronounced nori, is interesting inasmuch as it’s ambiguous even by Japanese standards. Official Japanese government PR has emphasized the reading of the character as “beautiful”, but in its contemporary usage it is much more closely associated with “order” as in words like gōrei (号令), which means “order” (in the military sense), and reijō (令状), which means “warrant” or “written command”.
Suffice it to say, any imperial nomenclature that hearkens to military speech is bound to set off alarm bells, especially in Japan’s immediate neighbourhood, which last week’s announcement promptly did. Especially given Prime Minister Abe’s own track record for nationalistic grandstanding, as well as his own family lineage (his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime minister in charge of industrial development in occupied Manchuria before being rehabilitated as a postwar prime minister), it is not surprising that the new name arose suspicions of militaristic and nationalistic undertones.
Stranger still, some social media commentators alleged that the PM had sought to smuggle his own name into the new epochal name. While this allegation seems like a bit of a stretch, it’s not totally beyond imagination — and to Abe’s critics would fit with some of the autocratic impulses of Japan’s longest-serving postwar prime minister. No, none of the characters in the surname Abe are present in the name Reiwa, but as some have pointed out, some of the characters’ radicals (building blocks of a kanji) are also present in the phonetic katakana spelling of the PM’s name. It’s the sort of typographic pun that Japan’s literati have always appreciated, and it is if nothing else bound to keep the country’s conspiracy mongers busy.
So what, then, does Reiwa actually mean? Is it an appeal to a more hardline patriotic society or the exact opposite of that? In the land of perpetual ambiguity, where yes can mean no, one can equal zero, and when you reach a fork in the road you can, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, “take it,” it’s probably just as much one as the other. Anyone who has ever lived in Japan is well aware of the cultural impetus placed consensus — hence why Japanese staff meetings generally grind on for hours. My best guess is that the title Reiwa was intended to be as broad and flexible as possible, as pleasing to the lefty tree-huggers in Kyoto and backwooods Shikoku as to the banzai-nostalgists who hang out at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine wearing rising sun headbands and shouting wartime slogans through bullhorns.
In Japan you can, indeed, “take the fork”. And then sum it up in two perfect syllables.
What comes next?
The abdication of the 85-year-old Emperor Akihito on May 1, 2019 (the first such imperial abdication in modern Japanese history) will officially bring to an end the Heisei (平成) period, a thirty-year bracket of Japanese history that most Japanese are more than happy to put behind them. The Showa period, for all its obvious warts, was nonetheless to become synonymous with the postwar Japanese economic miracle, and as such has a strong nostalgic allure for many. Such is not likely to be the case for the Heisei period. Even Prime Minister Abe’s announcement of the new name, in which he referenced the relevant verse in the Manyoshu about “the budding of plum blossoms after a harsh winter,” hints at a strong desire to turn the page on the Heisei era.
The death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 coincided more or less with the collapse of Japan’s 1980s bubble economy and the beginning of a deep recession that lasted more or less for 20 years. The first decade of Akihito’s reign would encompass the devastating 1995 Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake and the country’s worst ever domestic terrorist attack, carried out by sarin gas-wielding members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo subway system — also in 1995.
The national mood would improve slightly during the 2000s before the economy tanked once again (along with the rest of the world) in 2008. In Japan the global economic downturn brought about political instability, with a parade of short-lived governments (including Abe’s first term) and some stunningly bad leaders, all of whom failed to fix the country’s stubborn economic problems. Then in 2011 the country suffered its worst calamity since the A-bombs when an offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that demolished much of northeastern Japan while setting off the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
All the while, the Heisei period will invariably go down in history as the time when an ascendant China usurped Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and a juiced up South Korea largely ate its lunch as the world’s leading producer of consumer electronics. Nobody in Japan could be blamed for wanting this particular epoch over and done with.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the national mood in Japan appears considerably more positive than in recent decades. When contrasted with Trumpian America, the Brexit chaos of the United Kingdom, and the Europe of the gillets jaunes and ascendant far-right parties, Japan stands out as a bastion of calm and stability in the industrialized world. Trust in its institutions consistently ranks higher than in other first world countries and the economy, while a far cry from the steroid-fueled growth of the 1970s and 1980s and still saddled with some serious liabilities (including the developed world’s largest national debt), seems to be ticking along nicely.
While the Heisei period was downright depressing for the most part, it seems to have finished on a more positive note. The tragedy of March 11, 2011 appeared to have a paradoxically positive effect on the country’s mood. Japan, forever the “comeback kid” of the world, suddenly seemed to rediscover its capacity for heroic recovery, while at the same time the disaster reminded the world (thanks to the disruption to global commerce that it produced) that in innumerable industries from surgical equipment to aircraft components the Made-in-Japan brand still carries enormous clout. In the ensuing years Japan has embraced international tourism like never before, thrown itself into preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympiad, and generally rediscovered a love for its own cultural traditions and natural environment, and in the process begun undoing the legacy of industrial ugliness of the Shōwa and early Heisei-era “Construction State”.
Again, the overall national mood appears better than it has been in a long time.
So what will the Reiwa period represent? As somebody who loves Japan and cares about its future as a country, I have my own wish list.
I hope that the Reiwa period will see Japan will come to realize that its truly unique spirit of harmony and cohesion is big enough and strong enough to fully embrace people of different skin colours and ethnic-cultural backgrounds. Indeed, Japan’s enviable degree of safety and social harmony is a big part of what draws people to it, as well as the allure of its ancient and modern culture. Barring a massive AI revolution (which admittedly would probably come to Japan before anywhere else) the country will need a lot more immigrants than it currently takes in. Surely Japan’s famed yamato damashi (Japanese spirit) can encompass people who don’t fit within the country’s traditionally narrow ethnic notions of what it means to be Japanese.
Japan’s government and corporate culture has in the last decade at last taken admirable steps to address the country’s deeply embedded sexism. Needless to say I hope this will continue, as much work still needs to be done. Women remain terribly underrepresented in Japanese politics and in senior corporate management. And then of course there’s the issue of imperial succession, which remains male-only. This looked to change only years ago until the birth of a son by Naruhito’s brother Akishino and his wife. Still, a change in imperial succession law to allow an empress to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne (it’s happened before) would send a powerful signal to the country, and the world, that times have indeed changed. Japan’s retrograde gender roles have even taken a toll on the imperial family itself, with Princess Ayako becoming the latest in a series of Japanese princesses to forfeit her royal status to marry a commoner in November 2018. It seems “princess” is no longer what Japanese girls want to be when they grow up, unless it’s more along the lines of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
For all its ingenuity and global leadership, Japan still remains behind the times on a number of social and legal fronts, notably recognition of same-sex partnerships (and lack of same-sex marriage) and application of the death penalty. The latest statistics show that a majority of Japanese now support the idea of same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ rights more generally, but conservatives like Abe continue to ignore the issue. Likewise, Japan’s status as the only first-world democracy apart from the US to continue to execute people is an international eyesore. But Japan does have a precedent for death penalty abolitionism — back when Buddhism was in the ascendancy during the Nara period — so clearly it can be done. Granted, a majority of Japanese still claim to support it, but the same has been true of virtually every country that has ever abolished it. Even if emotionally we all crave revenge, isn’t it kind of like craving booze. Even though we want it, deep down we recognize it’s not good for us.
China may have now overtaken Japan as Asia’s preeminent economic giant, but Japan remains a far better country when it comes to being a good human rights-respecting global citizen. In today’s world, however, this is scarcely a given and indeed the staunchly conservative Abe government has overseen legislation that has hurt Japan’s international credibility as a bastion of liberal human rights, most notably with its State Secrets Law. The outrage provoked by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the government’s apparent coddling of the atomic power industry, should be a source of inspiration to all Japanese, a sign that its citizens are not to be pushed around. Japan has come a long way from the country it was in the aftermath of World War II, when a cynical wartime government seriously expected each and every Japanese citizen to lay down their life for a future and nonsensical war. But with authoritarianism on the rise worldwide, the temptation to go back in that direction and to glorify the country’s militaristic past will always be there.
Lastly, as a historian I hope the new emperor will be unafraid of addressing the skeletons in his country’s historical closet, including the issue of his grandfather’s culpability in the carnage of 1931-1945. The handful of surviving Chinese and Korean “comfort women” (Can we please be honest and call them sex slaves?) and other war crime survivors will die off in a decade or so, but people’s memories are longer than this, and this family legacy remains an unaddressed blight on Japan’s international reputation, especially among its next-door neighbours. This government probably won’t do it, but as emperor Naruhito definitely could. Achieving a deeper, more psychologically satisfying peace with China and Korea would go a long way towards deeper regional healing, and perhaps even be a catalyst for change in the region’s most retrograde state, North Korea. It’s worth a try at least.
Japan is a hard country not to love, warts and all. This dawning of a new era could really capitalize on this and remind everyone that Japan is a country forever able to find new and better ways of doing things. With the world on the cusp of a new transformation stemming from twin challenges of global climate change and fast-advancing artificial intelligence, Japanese leadership and expertise in both these areas is going to be much needed. How the country fares on these fronts will invariably set the tone for the Reiwa period. As much as some may idealize Japan’s militaristic past, there will be no going back to that world. But Japan’s ingenuity and idiosyncratic ways of getting things done will invariably be invaluable in these uncertain times.
Long Live the Reiwa Emperor!