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Japan's Reiwa era

Ancient tradition carries forward with Japan's new era

System of naming periods has deep cultural roots dating back over 1,000 years

Crown Prince Naruhito, left, will ascend the throne in about a month, marking the beginning of a new imperial era. 

TOKYO -- After 30 years on the throne, Japanese Emperor Akihito will abdicate in about one month. That will mean the end of the current Heisei era, and the country is waiting with bated breath to discover this Monday what the next era will be called.

The system of era names has deep roots, stretching back more than 1,000 years in Japan. The names offer a shorthand for defined periods of history, and social commentators have been reflecting on how the current era will be remembered.

The concept was born in ancient China, based on the idea that the sovereign ruled even time itself. The first Chinese era, established by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in 140 B.C., was Jianyuan. The era was repeatedly changed by subsequent emperors.

The custom spread to Vietnam, Korea and other regions influenced by China's culture and within its tributary system. But only in Japan is the system still in use. In China, era names were used until the Qing dynasty, about 2,000 years after they first came into existence. The system was replaced by the Western calendar.

Japan's first era was Taika, established in 645 when Prince Naka no Oe and his allies destroyed the powerful Soga clan and began building a centralized nation around the emperor.

Emperor Akihito greets well-wishers at his last New Year's public appearance on Jan. 2.   © Reuters

But associating an era with an emperor's reign is a relatively recent innovation. That began with an edict from Emperor Mutsuhito in 1868, ordering that Jan. 1 of that year be made the starting date for the new imperial system. That marked the beginning of the Meiji era, Japan's tumultuous period of industrialization.

The edict went on to call for using the same era name during the entire period of a single emperor's reign. This launched the "one reign, one era name" system.

Tomomi Iwakura, an influential official at the time, argued that it would be in line with the policy of aligning religion with politics for the emperor to choose the era name. The emperor chose Meiji through a random draw.

Japan has had 247 eras since Taika, and the names with identifiable origins have traditionally come from quotes in classical Chinese literature, such as "Shisho Gokyo" (The Four Books and Five Classics). The name Heisei is from two Chinese classics, "Shiki" (The Records of the Grand Historian) and "Shokyo" (The Book of Documents). It is a wish for peace in Japan and overseas, as well as in heaven and on earth.

The names are traditionally created by scholars familiar with the classics. In pre-modern times, most names were created by the Sugawara family and scholars descended from them.

The government has not revealed who came up with the name Heisei, but it is thought to have been the late Tatsuro Yamamoto, a historian who was familiar with Chinese classics.

Now, however, some say the next name should be chosen from Japanese classics.

Japanese literature experts were included in discussions when the name was changed to Heisei, according to people familiar with the process. This time as well, experts with backgrounds in Japanese literature, Chinese literature, Japanese history and East Asian history will be involved, a government official said.

Procedurally, the government will stick to tradition in presenting the name. Similar to the pronouncement of the Heisei era in 1989, the new name will be delivered by the chief cabinet secretary at a news conference.

Immediately after the name is decided, it will go to a government official, who will write it with a brush pen on a placard. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will then hold the name up before reporters, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will later offer remarks about the name's meaning and origin.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi proclaims the Heisei era in 1989.

The plan is the same as when Keizo Obuchi announced the Heisei era. That news conference led to the now-famous image of Obuchi, sporting thick-rimmed glasses and holding aloft a placard, declaring 'The new era is Heisei." Officials had moved so quickly to make the name public, the ink was only half dry.

But the announcement will be different in at least one respect: the news conference, in addition to being televised, is expected to be streamed online. For the new era -- the age of the smartphone -- some changes had to be made.

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