Reiwa: what’s behind the name of Japan’s new era and what does the term really mean?
The recent abdication of Japan’s emperor, Akihito, made history in more ways than one. Of note, he is the first Japanese emperor to step down in over 200 years. The accession of his son Naruhito to the throne on 1 May this year also brought in a new imperial era: Reiwa.
The reign of each successive emperor marks a new era; Akihito’s era was Heisei (1989-2019). Each era carries a great deal of weight in defining a period. For many Japanese, Reiwa offers a fresh start—an opportunity to put behind them the tragedies and unease that characterised Heisei, from the terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway and end of the economic bubble in the 1990s, through to Fukushima in 2011.
The name of an era is hugely significant. It sets the tone for the upcoming period and Reiwa’s unveiling was preceded by intense public anticipation and weeks of top-secret government discussions.
There is some confusion over what ‘Reiwa’ really means, however. ‘Rei’ is often used to mean ‘command’ or ‘order’, while ‘wa’ is defined as ‘peace’ or ‘harmony’.
This interpretation of ‘rei’ has generated some controversy, given its authoritarian tones. The government prefers to use a rarer sense of ‘rei’, which is ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’.
The meaning of ‘Reiwa’ can, therefore, be roughly translated as ‘beautiful harmony’—officially, at least.
Addressing the nation on the era’s name, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe provided a more colourful interpretation. Reiwa means that “culture is born and nourished, as people’s hearts are drawn beautifully together”, he announced in a public speech.
Reiwa also makes history as the first era name to be drawn from Japanese, rather than Chinese, literature. This, perhaps, reflects changing Japanese attitudes towards its historical and cultural links with China. It was taken from Man’yoshu, a collection of Japanese poetry compiled in the eighth century – bestowing the era’s name with a rich sense of Japanese heritage.
‘Reiwa’ is clearly much more than just a name. As with previous eras, it will come to be entwined with the events that occurred during its tenure. You could say that its ultimate definition, therefore, is yet to be revealed.