Japan moves toward “Reiwa”

On April 1st, the new gengo (元号), known as era or period in English, has been announced in Japan. It is “Reiwa” (令和), and will mark the shift of imperial decree to the crown prince Naruhito. This is also momentous, as this is the 1st time that the gengo is named using Japanese literature; for the previous eras the naming convention was determined following centuries-old tradition of using Chinese literature.

Pics from the official announcement of the new gengo, or era, that will mark the arrival of the new Emperor this year. To the left is Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga making the annoucement , and to the right is a clearer image of the writing of Reiwa in kanji. These pics were taken as my family and I watched the announcement live.

Gengo is significant within Japan’s culture, as it is tied to the emperor, and acts as a decree of his imperial reign. A few years ago, the current Emperor Akihito announced his retirement, and will officially step down on April 30th. Thus, a new Gengo signifies the shift of imperial power to the new emperor, while the previous gengo is retired.

The current gengo Heisei (平成) lasts for about only 30 years, from January 1st, 1989 to early 2019. Heisei is the 247th in Japan’s history. The new gengo, Reiwa, will become the 248th starting May 1st.

The word Reiwa is taken from a line in the Manyōshū (万葉集), which is one of the oldest existing documentation of Japanese poetry. While the character “wa” (和) has been used many times in previous gengo, the character “rei” (令) makes its 1st time appearance, marking this naming convention very Japanese-like. The original line goes as follow:

初春の月にして 気淑く風
梅は鏡前の粉を披き 蘭は珮後の香を薫らす

(しょしゅんのれいげつにして きよくかぜやわら
うめはきょうぜんのこをひらき らんははいごのこうをかおらす)


Prime Minister Abe explaining the decision behind using Reiwa as the new gengo.

The characters rei and wa are highlighted in red, and their place within the poem is significant. Prime Minister Abe explained during the announcement how this poem inspires the new gengo. This meaning is pretty deep, both culturally and symbolically. Although it would be a feat to give a thorough interpretation from Japanese to English, I will try to give a simpler explanation:

  1. Reiwa’s meaning is tied to the season of Spring and how it symbolizes the new beginnings after enduring the harsh times of the previous cold season, Winter.
  2. The timing of Spring is auspicious, and said to be a pleasant one, too.
  3. The poem follows a much older Japanese calendar system called inreki (陰暦), or Lunar calendar, when February was the month designated as the start of Spring alongside the beginning of the new year. This is indicated by the mentioning of the Japanese plum flower called ume (梅); associated with the month of February, it is described as going into full bloom after enduring the cold Winter.

Based on Prime Minister Abe’s description, the overall meaning of Reiwa is pretty unique. The character “rei” features its meaning from how it’s used in the poem from above, veering towards new growth (for both humans and culture), while the character “wa” indicate pleasant times of peace amongst people and throughout society.

The crown prince Naruhito is scheduled to officially take his place as Emperor on May 1st 2019. The period of Reiwa will also go into effect at the same time.

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