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Emperor Akihito greets crowds at his last New Year's public appearance on Jan. 2. When succeeded by his son, Naruhito, on May 1, it will mark the beginning of a new imperial era for Japan.   © Reuters
The Big Story

A new emperor, a new era. A new Japan?

After an Imperial age marked by stagnation, nation hopes for a "reset"

HIROSHI MARUTANI, Nikkei Political Editor | Japan

TOKYO -- The world remembers 1989 as a year of era-defining events. Pro-democracy rallies were crushed in China's Tiananmen Square that June, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November heralded the end of the Cold War. But in Japan, 1989 is permanently imprinted on the national consciousness for another reason: It was the year that the Showa era ended.

Emperor Hirohito's death on Jan. 7, 1989 stopped the clock on the 64-year Showa era, a tumultuous period that included the Second World War and the postwar boom that followed. A new era, Heisei, began a day later when his son Akihito became Japan's 125th emperor.

The change from Showa to Heisei had a practical impact on the everyday lives of Japanese people. On wall calendars and official documents all over the country, Jan. 8, 1989 became the first day of Heisei 1 on the Imperial calendar, which is used alongside the Gregorian calendar.

But these Imperial eras also serve as unofficial markers of the spirit of the times, similar to the way decades come to reflect the zeitgeist of a period. The "Roaring '20s" are remembered as a decade of gin-soaked parties, jazz and extravagance. The 1950s are defined by Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, while the 1960s are associated with the Beatles and youthful protest.

Now, as Japan prepares for the end of the Heisei era on April 30, when Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne, the country is taking stock of the complicated 30-year period -- and looking anxiously toward the as-yet-unnamed new Imperial age.

The Heisei era started amid the frenzy of speculative bubbles and excited chatter about a book entitled "Japan as Number One." In the autumn of 1989, Sony acquired Hollywood's Columbia Pictures, and Mitsubishi Estate bought New York's Rockefeller Center -- two enormous deals that Americans viewed as sure signs of their nation's decline.

Only three years later, however, Japan's asset-price bubble burst, triggering a full-fledged financial system crisis and setting the stage for two "lost decades" of stagnation.

Since then, Japan's economic might has been overtaken by China. Its glory as a world-beating electronics powerhouse has faded. It has become a nation of old people, with a rapidly declining population.

So it is perhaps not too surprising that some are hoping the new Imperial era will mark a turning point. Some note optimistically that the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo marked the emergence of postwar Japan on the world stage, and wonder if the 2020 Games might signal a similar shift. Still others believe Japan could turn its demographic problem into an opportunity by becoming an example for other aging nations.

"Japan has many challenges that we all know -- gender inequities, work-life imbalance, an aging society. But it is [also] a helping society," said Nancy Snow, professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. "It makes things that the world wants, and is a place where the future is now."

Others are not so sure. Instead of innovating to cope with its looming problems, Japan is failing to create an adequate social security system to deal with the coming demographic crisis, says Yasunori Sone, political scientist and professor emeritus of Keio University in Tokyo.

"The aging will continue further. The population will decline more. Income gaps will widen. The next 30 years would be an even tougher period than the last 30 years. But there is no sense of urgency," Sone said. "Like the proverbial ostrich, people are burying their heads in the sand. Life is reasonably good, as long as they don't think about the future."

"Beyond the Night Sky"

One event that made Japanese people keenly aware of the ending of the Heisei era was the breakup of SMAP, an iconic Japanese boy band. The five-member J-pop group was created in 1988, the last full year of the Showa era. Their debut was in 1991, the third year of the Heisei period, and their single "Can't Stop!!Loving" peaked at Number 2 on the charts.

Japanese pop group SMAP disbanded soon after Emperor Akihito's abdication announcement in 2016, to some minds, confirming the end of Heisei.   © Reuters

In addition to being pop idols, SMAP's members also hosted a hugely popular variety show, and starred in television series and movies. The band was considered the last J-pop group that produced truly national hit songs known by Japanese of all ages and from all walks of life.

On Aug. 14, 2016, or Heisei 28, SMAP officially announced they were breaking up -- just six days after Emperor Akihito had expressed his wish to abdicate in a prerecorded video address to the nation. It was the beginning of the end of the Heisei period.

A famous Japanese saying suggests that popular songs change with the times, and the times change with popular songs. Many Japanese, especially the elderly, strongly felt that the Showa age had ended when legendary pop singer Hibari Misora died in June, 1989 -- the first year of Heisei -- at the early age of 52. The performer embodied Japan's postwar recovery: Misora, whose name translates to "lark in the beautiful sky," had uplifted the nation's damaged spirits when she debuted in the aftermath of the second world war.

It seems fitting, then, that SMAP, which sang so many songs that reflected the times -- "Sekai Ni Hitotsu Dake No Hana" (Only One), "Yozora no Mukou" (Beyond the Night Sky) and "Lion Heart" -- bowed out from the Japanese pop music scene as the Heisei era began to wind down.

For the full picture of Japan's Heisei highs and lows, see here.

Political "nightmare"

It was also a period of profound political turmoil. Most Japanese prime ministers during this period resigned after serving for a year or so, with the notable exceptions of Shinzo Abe, the incumbent, and Junichiro Koizumi, who both remained in office for more than five years. During the 30 years of Heisei, Japan has had 17 prime ministers from five different parties.

Two major corruption scandals -- the Recruit shares-for-political-favors scandal and the Sagawa Express political donation scandal -- broke out in the early Heisei period, stoking strong public cynicism about politics.

These scandals led to radical political reforms and changes in the nation's governing system. As a consequence, the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party -- which led the nation through its postwar economic reconstruction and was deemed to be a perennial ruling bloc -- split up and fell from power twice during this period.

Japanese voters pinned their hopes on a system designed to promote regular transfers of power between two major parties, similar to those in Britain and the U.S. But the non-LDP government led by the Democratic Party that emerged in the latter years of Heisei performed so poorly that Abe recently derided their stint in power as "a nightmare."

This paved the way for the LDP's return to power as the dominant ruling party. Even now, the opposition camp remains deeply fragmented, with little prospect for unseating the LDP again.

The Heisei era saw the collapse and revival of the Liberal Democratic Party, now headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.   © Reuters

The word "Heisei" comes from Chinese classics, and roughly means "achieving peace." This era name was adopted in hopes of peace both at home and abroad. When the era name was chosen, memories of the war that ravaged the nation in the first half of the preceding Showa period were still firmly etched in the memories of many Japanese.

Indeed, Japan was not involved in any war during the Heisei period. But the world outside Japan was not quite so peaceful. Many other parts of the world suffered from terrorist attacks, and the world order shifted dramatically. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who had attended Emperor Showa's funeral, led the world to the end of the Cold War and declared the advent of a "New World Order." The current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, has been pursuing his "America First" agenda.

At the beginning of the Heisei era, when the world appeared to have entered a period of lasting peace, there was a sense of euphoria in Japan. Their country had rebuilt itself to join the top ranks of nations, and emerged as a serious rival to the U.S.

Three decades on, that has long faded: The Heisei era is coming to a close amid a nebulous cloud of uncertainty about the coming new age. When it is finally revealed this spring, Japan wants the new era's name to symbolize a "reset" and "hope."

Sumi ink and shikishi paper

Before the Meiji period (1868 -- 1912), era names were often changed during an imperial reign to renew public sentiment when the nation was hit by major misfortunes, such as natural disasters and famines, or to reflect auspicious events.

Since the Meiji period, however, the principle of one era for each emperor has been observed. Even so, a new era name still brings about a major change in the general mood among the people, as was the case with the transition from the Showa to the Heisei era.

Accordingly, the collective psyche of the Japanese changes from era to era. While corporate warriors in the Showa period were willing to work brutally long hours, for instance, young Japanese born in the Heisei era are not.

"Japanese Heisei young people see a future where they will not live as well as their 'go-go' Showa predecessors," said Snow. "They don't have as much of a purpose as the generation before, [who] had much to prove to the world," she said, based on her own observation of Japanese college students in her classroom.

While corporate warriors in the Showa period were willing to work brutally long hours, young Japanese born in the post-bubble Heisei era are not. (Photo by Hideyuki Shindo)

Predictions and rumors about the name of the new era are flying around on social media. The list of rumored candidates includes "Heiwa" (peace) and "Ankyu" (peaceful and permanent), but the name is a carefully guarded secret. For the past 30 years, the process of selecting and announcing a new era name has been rehearsed at least once a year as part of the preparations for "The Day."

A former high-ranking government official who was once involved in the work says many proposed era names -- all handwritten by experts in Chinese classics and Japanese literature -- are stored in a safe within a government building. When one of these scholars dies, a new one is appointed to the task. The procedures have been handed down, unchanged, for decades.

In determining and publishing the new era name, called gengo, the government makes every effort to maintain confidentiality. But unlike the occasion when the name Heisei was chosen and announced as the new gengo, this is all happening in the era of the internet and smartphones -- perhaps easing the chance of a breach.

Before the cabinet meeting to make the formal decision on the new era name, all the cabinet members will be asked to hand over their cellphones and other mobile communication devices -- including smartwatches -- and they will be required to remain in the room until the official announcement is made. One cabinet member sounds resigned to this enormous inconvenience.

"I have no choice," he says. "It only happens once in several decades and I don't want to be suspected of seeking to leak."

The process will end around noon on April 1, when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will unveil the name, handwritten by a calligrapher in traditional sumi ink on a thick square of decorated shikishi paper.

An iconic moment: Keizo Obuchi announces the name of the new era, "Heisei," roughly meaning "achieving peace."   © Kyodo

Keizo Obuchi, the chief cabinet secretary who announced that the new reign following Showa would be called Heisei, is remembered more for this moment than anything else he did in his political career -- including his service as prime minister.

Obuchi renamed the LDP faction he had inherited "Heisei Kenkyukai" and won the nation's top job in 1998, or Heisei 10. Although Obuchi collapsed while in office in 2000, dying the following month, the faction he once led is still called Heisei Kenkyukai.

His daughter, Yuko Obuchi, has served as a cabinet member twice and is thought to be a future candidate for prime minister. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, who will play the same role as the one famously performed by Obuchi, is considered to be one of the candidates to succeed Abe.

Just as SMAP's disbandment came at the end of the Heisei era, some important events in the history of Japanese politics are closely associated with the transition to a new era.

Former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, under whom Obuchi served as chief cabinet secretary, devoted immense political capital and energy to tax reforms, including the creation of the consumption tax -- Japan's first large indirect tax -- which was introduced as a 3% levy on sales of goods and services on April 1, 1989, or Heisei 1. In October this year, the consumption tax rate will be raised for a third time to 10%.

The consumption tax also marked a shift in focus for Japan's economic policy. From public works spending aimed at promoting the nation's recovery from wartime devastation through the development of infrastructure, the government moved to social security spending to support the nation's rapidly aging population.

Emperor Akihito, right, and Empress Michiko, left, at Saipan, June 2005.

Nobody knows what kind of social and economic trends will define the post-Heisei era. It is unclear whether -- or how -- the Japanese economy will make a comeback, or whether the challenges posed by a shrinking population will be overcome.

History shows that the start of a new era can coincide with sweeping change.

At the beginning of the Meiji era in the late 19th century, Japan began to adopt a capitalist system and opened up to the world. Yet this new modern phase also marked the end of an era: When Meiji began, the nation's rulers were still samurais.

Sone, the political scientist, says Japan now needs a new generation to usher in similarly sweeping changes in the new era.

"Will the next generations be able to do what we couldn't do?" asked Sone, a baby boomer. "I have to hope they will."

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