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Editorial: Public called on to embrace new Reiwa era

  • April 2, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

The Japanese government has decided to name the next era “Reiwa.” The new era will be ushered in as the current Heisei era ends when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30 and Crown Prince Naruhito accedes to the Imperial Throne the following day.


At a news conference on April 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “I hope that the new era name will be widely accepted by the public and take root deeply in Japanese people’s daily lives.”


Up until now, era names were derived from Chinese classics such as “the Book of Documents,” China’s oldest known history book, and “I Ching,” both in the “Five Classics of Confucianism.” However, Reiwa is the first Japanese era name that originates from the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry “Manyoshu” (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves).

The prime minister said “Manyoshu” represents Japan’s long history and nurtured culture and beautiful nature that changes with the seasons, adding that these national characteristics should be handed down to future generations.


The selection of Reiwa as the next era name apparently reflects conservatism pursued by Prime Minister Abe. However, it is the Japanese public that will attach special meaning to Reiwa.

This will be the first change of era name with the abdication of a reigning emperor in Japan’s history of constitutional politics. The Cabinet is mandated by the public to take responsibility for the era name. Therefore, the process leading up to the selection of the era name must be shared with the people.


The government narrowed down candidate names proposed by scholars to several choices. After listening to opinions from a panel of experts on the issue as well as the heads and deputy heads of both chambers of the Diet, all Cabinet ministers discussed the matter and approved a decree to change the era name.


In particular, the panel of experts was supposed to reflect public opinion on the issue. When the era name was changed to the current Heisei from Showa, the process of selecting the era name, including discussions by a panel of experts, was launched on the day Emperor Showa passed away, and it took only about 90 minutes before the Heisei name was announced. The meeting of the expert panel lasted for only about 20 minutes.


This time, however, the government had plenty of time to discuss the issue because the dates of Emperor Akihito’s abdication and Crown Prince Naruhito’s accession to the throne had been fixed in advance. The expert panel spent roughly 20 more minutes on discussing the new era name, and the entire process including the Cabinet meeting took approximately 40 minutes longer than before. However, the time of the announcement had been fixed beforehand.


The government appointed renowned writers and scholars to the panel of experts in an apparent bid to show that the selection process was open to the public. However, the move actually has given the public the impression that the next era name had been predetermined.


The process of selecting an era name must be accurately recorded and disclosed after a certain period of time so that the process can be examined by the public. However, there is a possibility that no official documents recording in detail the process of choosing Heisei as the current era name are preserved. If the government were to arbitrarily select information to be preserved, it would run counter to the principle of sovereignty residing with the people.


Importance was attached to preserving records of changing the era name from Meiji to Taisho and from Taisho to Showa in the 20th century. The government’s documents on these changes record the processes even before narrowing down candidate names and who proposed which names, and these records were subsequently disclosed. The documents recording the process of changing the era name to Taisho state that the records were aimed at allowing future generations to use the information as a reference.


The government is required to release relevant documents at the earliest date possible under the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs and the Public Records and Archives Management Act.


Prime Minister Abe is believed to have met with Crown Prince Naruhito three days before selecting the next era name to explain multiple candidates to the next emperor. If the prime minister had sought opinions from the Crown Prince, such a practice could constitute a violation of Article 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the emperor “shall not have powers related to government.” Therefore, the details of the meeting need to be clearly disclosed for public verification.


Conservatives within and out of the political world had warned the government against announcing the next era name in advance of Emperor Akihito’s abdication. They reasoned that the next emperor should handle procedures for promulgating the new era name on the grounds that the emperor and the corresponding era name are inseparable.


However, the government dismissed such demands on the grounds that delaying the promulgation by nearly one month after the Cabinet approves the new era name could also violate Article 4 of the supreme law.


The selection of the era name to follow Heisei was unique in that rumors about the new era name had been widespread on the internet.


At the end of the Showa era, news organizations reported on a daily basis that Emperor Showa’s condition was worsening, prompting the public to refrain from holding various events or outings. However, the fact that people are free from such an oppressive atmosphere this time is desirable for people’s lives.


Such a positive atmosphere is attributable to the fact that a majority of the general public support Emperor Akihito’s abdication.


Those in power had previously used era names to rule society during those periods. However, era names are now part of Japanese culture as the emperor is defined by the Constitution as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.


Era names are also called punctuations and bookmarks that separate periods, allowing the public to share views on each era.


Each and every member of the Japanese public will turn history’s page while looking back on the 30-year Heisei era and thinking about how to create the next Reiwa era.

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