Japan’s new imperial era of Reiwa began with Crown Prince Naruhito ascending to the throne on May 1, 2019 to succeed his father Emperor Akihito, who chose to abdicate, putting an end to the Heisei era, which lasted from Jan. 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019.
Every emperor in Japan has his own gengo, a name which typically comprises two characters, or Kanji in Japanese, a writing system that is based on borrowed or modified Chinese characters. Generally speaking, the gengo is used during the whole length of an emperor’s reign, and has an auspicious meaning that represents the values and ideas of the people at that time. Each of the Japanese emperors before the Meiji Restoration (1868) could have several gengos. But every emperor after the restoration could only have one gengo.
The new emperor’s gengo is Reiwa, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced at a news conference on April 1. “Rei” means good and beautiful and “Wa” can be translated into “peace and harmony.” According to Suga, the new era name was chosen from a line of a poem in the preface of “Manyoshu,” the oldest collection of Japanese poetry compiled sometime in the eighth century, which sings paeans to the spirit of plums that survive the cold and harsh Japanese winter.
All the former gengos in Japanese emperor history since the year of 645 were chosen from Chinese literary classics. Reiwa is the 248th gengo in Japan and the first one not drawing inspiration from Chinese classics such as “Historical Records” and “Book of History.” Some Chinese people have thus claimed that the naming of Japan’s new era is a break from its 1,300-year imperial tradition and prompted an alarmist call for vigilance against what was seen as Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s “de-sinicizing” effort of Japanese culture.
Finding a name for the new era from his own country’s literature may be very much in line with Abe’s intention to make Japan great again and his mixed feelings about China. “Our government chose the name 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 spring,” the prime minister said in an interview.
In my point of view, there may be many interpretations behind the imperial name. Nevertheless, it is unnecessary to make a fuss over it. First of all, despite its Japanese origin, it remains a traditional name comprising two Chinese characters, not only in form, but also in connotations.
Meanwhile, the cultures of the two neighboring countries have become mutually influenced and deeply interwoven with each other during the past thousands of years. So it is virtually meaningless, if not impossible, to draw a clear and man-made demarcating line between them.
Last but not least, instead of reading too much into the naming of the new Japanese imperial era, we should pay more attention to the significance of the two characters, which imply peace, harmony, beauty and prosperity. As we all know, Japan made great efforts to rise from the ashes of its defeat in World War II to become one of the world’s strongest economies. The Japanese economy reached a climax in the 1960s and 1970s. However, The Plaza Accord signed in 1985 with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany dealt a deadly blow to Japan and halted its way toward growing bigger and stronger. The country suffered another attack from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, followed by the 2008 global financial crisis. Under these circumstances, despite the fact that Emperor Akihito is a peace-loving and easy-going person, many Japanese people’s memory of the three-decade Heisei era is one marked with stagnation and economic losses. We really hope that Reiwa will bring good fortune and prosperity to Japanese people as its name represents. The whole world will also wait to see whether Japan can fulfill its promise to contribute to global governance and peacemaking process in the future.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)