What’s in a name?
Quite a lot if you’re a Japanese citizen awaiting the official announcement Monday of what the soon-to-be-installed new emperor’s next era will be called.
It’s a proclamation that has happened only twice in nearly a century, and the new name will follow Emperor Naruhito, after his May 1 investiture, for the duration of his rule — and beyond, becoming his official name after death.
An era name is an inextricable part of public life and shared memory in Japan. A lot of what happens in the years to come — births, deaths, natural disasters, cultural and social phenomena, election glory and political scandal — will be connected to the era name.
As such, the closing days of the current Heisei era, which is what retiring Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign has been called, have inspired a collective bout of nostalgia, soul-searching and occasional goofiness, as many Japanese reflect on both Heisei and this new, yet-to-be-named block of years that will loom over a huge part of their lives.
Buzz-cut teens have fielded questions at the hallowed spring high school baseball tournament about their feelings as the last group of Heisei sluggers. TV quiz shows have tested contestants’ Heisei knowledge. Special dolls have been made to mimic the moment when Chief Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga appears before cameras on Monday to reveal a card with the name that will replace Heisei. A high-end Tokyo restaurant has even reportedly unveiled a $900 wagyu burger to commemorate the era change.
All the while, a top-secret committee has been poring over ancient documents to find the perfect — and perfectly uncontroversial — two Chinese characters to describe the next several decades. The process, like the imperial system itself, is opaque, vaguely mysterious and steeped in ritual and bureaucracy.
What they settle on, however, will affect everything from calendars to train tickets to computer software to government documents, creating a windfall for printers and programmers, even as they give a name to Japan’s foreseeable future.
“The era names carry this weight with them; they have this sense of defining a period,” said Daniel Sneider, a Japan expert and lecturer at Stanford University.
As Heisei ends, “everything is imbued with this extra meaning. It’s the last cherry blossom season of the Heisei era. And I’m sure it will be true when the next era begins: It will be the first of everything during this next imperial era,” said Sneider, who has been visiting and living in Japan off and on since 1954. “Japanese life is filled with these combinations of tradition and modernity that some people used to find irritating … but this insistence on sticking to tradition is what distinguishes Japan from other societies.”
In much of the West the decades are often used to capture the spirit of a period — the Swinging ’60s, the Roaring ’20s. Japan’s era system is a bit more like a formalized version of the way British monarchs once lent their names to an entire sweep of years — the Victorian Age, for instance.
The era name once showcased an emperor’s power, but with the disappearance of real imperial strength after the war, it has lost much of its authority, said Hirohito Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Toyo University.
“It’s become something people can casually talk about, and even a topic on television quiz shows,” he said. Many younger Japanese are more used to the western calendar and so tend to see the era name as cumbersome, though some see the tradition as part of “cool Japan,” he said.
The current wave of excitement for the new name and nostalgia for the disappearing era is in large part because these changes of the guard are so rare.
The last one was in 1989, after the death of Hirohito, who took power in 1926. His Showa era was followed by his son Akihito’s Heisei era, which will come to an end with an unusual abdication — most emperors rule until death — that ushers in Naruhito on May 1.
Each era carries its own memories and flavor.
The Taisho era — 1912 to 1926 — for instance, was marked by an opening of society called Taisho Democracy that flourished before the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
Japanese often remember the Showa era as a period of extraordinary tumult: The nation moved from limited democracy to militarism and colonial expansion, pursuing a war of aggression that killed millions and left behind a bitterness that is still felt in much of Asia. After the destruction of the war, the nation then emerged from U.S. occupation as a democratic success story and, by the 1980s, a world economic titan.
Heisei, meanwhile, saw a decades-long economic slump, a crumbling of lifetime employment, and an easing of constitutional military constraints. Women and foreigners have joined the workforce in far greater numbers, though often not in decision-making positions, and, as the country rapidly ages and birthrates plunge, more and more young people have fled the farms for crammed cities.
“A lot of things have changed in the last 30 years, things that would have been hard to imagine” at the beginning of the Heisei era, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. It’s only natural, he said, that the country tries to put the closing of the era in context.
“In all nations there are certain rituals of identity and belonging and nationalism that are important to people, and the emperor is a symbol of who (the Japanese) are as a people,” he said. “Particularly when you’re facing troubled times, that becomes even more important.”