Crown Prince Naruhito, a 59-year-old baby boomer, was crowned the 126th emperor of Japan and ascended the fabled Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1. He succeeded his father, Emperor Akihito, who was the oldest son of Emperor Hirohito, in the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy, believed to trace back to the first emperor, Jinmu, in 660 B.C.
His ascension ushers in a new era name: Reiwa, or “Beautiful Harmony.”
Such era names, or gengo, are selected each time a new emperor ascends the throne. Let’s hope that Reiwa will better portend reality than previous era names.
Emperor Akihito’s era was named Heisei – “Peace Everywhere” – which lasted 30 years, from 1989 to 2019. But Heisei was not peaceful. Wars were rife throughout the world. People suffered from economic stagnation, terrorism and natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunami.
Showa means “Bright Harmony,” but that era of Emperor Hirohito from 1926 to 1989 encompassed disastrous wars (along with stupendous economic growth).
The emperors themselves don’t select the names, however. Traditionally, a dozen distinguished scholars of Chinese and Japanese classic literature meet to discuss and decide what specific name would be appropriate for the new era. They recommend several names and the prime minister, along with Cabinet members, make the final decision.
Heisei, for instance, was taken from two Chinese history and philosophy books: “Shiji” (Records of the Grand Historian) and “Shujing” (Books of Documents).
The back story on Reiwa is a beautiful one that harkens back to an era where people of all classes took the leisurely time to craft lovely poetry, appreciate nature’s brilliance and pursue other arts. It would be wonderful for the new emperor to encourage the Japanese people to pursue such life balance between work and leisure again.
Reiwa, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was taken from the oldest Japanese book, a poetry anthology known as Manyoshu. He said it was the first time ever that an era name was selected from that collection of 4,500 poems dating to the 8th century and earlier.
The poems were written by emperors, aristocrats, bureaucrats, soldiers, merchants and farmers. It’s amazing that such a range of people took the time to compose poetry, and extraordinary that a select council of distinguished poets in 8th-century aristocratic Japan considered their work, regardless of class.
The two kanji rei and wa are taken from the introductory poem among 38 included in one of the Manyoshu’s chapters, “Plum Flowers.” The poem describes a garden filled with fragrant plum trees, where a dozen noblemen attended a poetry party at the governor’s mansion in Dazaifu of the Fukuoka region in southern Japan.
It is now the beautiful (Rei) month of early spring
The weather is fine
The wind is peacefully soft (Wa)
The plum blossoms open
Powder before a mirror, the orchids exhale, fragrance after a sachet.
There is disagreement over the poem’s origins. Those who selected Reiwa insist it was taken from an original Japanese poem. Professor Tsuyoshi Kojima, an expert on the history of Chinese thought, disagrees, according to the Asahi Shimbun. He said the poem’s plum flower motif was adapted from a Chinese classic, possibly borrowed from “Rantei-jo,” written by Wang Xizhi, the most famous Chinese calligrapher in the 3rd century.
But Dr. Robert Campbell, a University of Tokyo emeritus professor, gets it right.
“It does not matter whether the era name is taken from a Chinese classical book or a Japanese classical book,” he told the Asahi Shimbun. “The name inspires the power of language and image, which is shared by people across borders. It does not exist in isolation but is language that connects the sentiments shared by people living in the northeastern Asian cultural region.”
If the era name transcends boundaries, however, the emperor himself still holds special and particularly nostalgic meaning for many Japanese. Each emperor is a symbol of the era in which particular people were born and raised; they are associated with memories of their life.
When I was a Washington correspondent for a Japanese newspaper, I covered Emperor Hirohito’s visit to the United States in 1975. When the emperor landed at Williamsburg Airport, I saw about 100 Japanese women who had married U.S. soldiers come to greet him from the nearby Navy town of Norfolk. They gave the emperor an enthusiastic welcome, waving flags of Japan and the United States.
It was his first step on American soil, his first visit to the former enemy of the Land of the Rising Sun.
“What does the Emperor Hirohito mean to you?” I asked one of women.
“He is my living witness,” she replied. “Before the war, during the war and after the war, he has been living throughout my hard life.
“I am so happy to be here and greet him in America. I will not forget this moment for the rest of my life.”
She was crying, but smiling. Tears ran down her cheeks.
Already, the new era of Reiwa has stirred widespread excitement in Japan.
When the government announced the name, several newspapers raced to publish special editions with blaring headlines and people scrambled to get them.
Commercial printers replaced Heisei with Reiwa in their publications, as did the government, which added the new name to documents and calendars.
The Manyoshu and related books are flying off bookshelves throughout the country. People are crowding to some of the places connected to the ancient book of poetry, such as the Sakamoto Hachiman Shrine at the former governor’s mansion in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. The shrine’s Shinto priest gave a joyful shout-out to several hundred unexpected visitors who flocked there after Reiwa was announced.
It would be fitting for the new era of Beautiful Harmony to help broaden the Japanese people’s continued quest to find their national identity. Let us hope the era will expand Japan’s dream of harmony not only among the Japanese people themselves but also with people all over the world – especially as the nation prepares to welcome them to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
By the way, who will be the first head of state to meet the new Emperor Naruhito?
Yes, U.S. President Donald Trump, who will make a state visit to Japan on May 25.
If Emperor Naruhito can manage to find beautiful harmony with the controversial American president, there may indeed be cause for optimism about the new era.
Tato Takahama is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He formerly served as a staff reporter/editor for the Yomiuri Shimbun in Tokyo and a teaching research fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.