April 2, 2019 / 7:18 AM / 6 months ago

What's in a name? Japan debates meaning of new "Reiwa" imperial era

TOKYO, April 2 (Reuters) - Japanese printers rushed to make calendars emblazoned with the new imperial era name on Tuesday as the public tried to make sense of the meaning of “Reiwa” a day after its unveiling gripped the nation.

The new era begins on May 1 when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father Emperor Akihito abdicates, ending his 31-year Heisei era.

The name, or “gengo”, is a part of daily life, used on coins, drivers’ licenses and official paperwork, as well as to count years, although Japanese also use the Western calendar.

But Reiwa’s meaning has generated confusion and controversy.

The first character, “rei,” is often used to mean “command” or “order,” which has an authoritarian nuance that offends some people. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government prefer “good” or “beautiful”, a lesser known meaning of the character.

The second character, “wa,” is defined as “peace” or “harmony”, so together the two characters mean “beautiful harmony,” Japan’s consulate in New York said in a bid to clear up any confusion.

“It does not mean ‘order and harmony’ as has been reported in the press,” the consulate said in a statement.

The gengo is chosen by the cabinet — not the emperor — from a short list of candidates proposed by scholars.

While many Japanese were positive about the new name, to some, particularly younger people, it sounded harsh.

“Do they mean ‘give in to orders?’ They probably want another militarist era,” one Twitter user said.


The mixed response may reflect a generation gap or a decline in knowledge about kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese and in gengo, said Masaharu Mizukami, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Chuo University in Tokyo.

“To those who don’t know the ‘good’ meaning, it can come across as negative,” he said.

Still, Mizukami said his initial impression of Reiwa wasn’t very positive because of the forceful nuance of “rei.”

In fact, “rei” was rejected in the 1860s, toward the end of the Tokugawa shogun’s rule over Japan, because the “command” meaning implied the emperor had power over the military rulers, Mizukami said.

Abe added to the confusion with a convoluted explanation of Reiwa’s meaning on Monday, saying it meant “a culture nurtured by people bringing their hearts together in a beautiful manner.”

By comparison, today’s Heisei era means “achieving peace”.

Abe stressed that for the first time the name’s source was a Japanese classic, a 1,300-year-old poem, not a Chinese text as was the case in past era names.

That Japanese origin may have been more important to Abe and other authorities than the meaning of the era name, which appeared to have been “slapped on,” said Mizukami.


While Japanese debated Reiwa’s meaning, bureaucrats on Tuesday busily updated computer software and documents which almost exclusively use the era name to get ready for May 1.

Printing shops also leapt into action.

Hours after the name was unveiled on Monday, a factory in Yoshiwara, north of Tokyo, began printing new Reiwa calendars.

Sales had dropped off since Emperor Akihito announced his desire to abdicate about two years ago, said Junichi Ishii, manager at the Todan Co. factory.

“I’m relieved that the new name was finally announced,” he said, raising his voice above the din of printing machines.

Ishii said he was sad the Heisei era was drawing to a close, but he hoped in the new era “Japan will be a place where everyone can live peacefully.” (Reporting and writing by Malcolm Foster; additional reporting by Elaine Lies, Masashi Kato, Kwiyeon Ha and Aina Tanaka; editing by Darren Schuettler)

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