What's in a name? Japan puzzles over 'Reiwa', the term for new imperial era

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese printers rushed to turn out calendars emblazoned with the new imperial era name on Tuesday as the public tried to make sense of the meaning of “Reiwa” a day after its unveiling gripped the nation.

An employee of Japan's calendar maker Todan Co. Ltd. produces calendars with the new era name 'Reiwa' after the government's announcement in Yoshiwara, Ibaraki Prefecture Japan, April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Masashi Kato

The new era begins on May 1 when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, brings to an end the 31-year Heisei era.

The name, or “gengo”, figures in daily life on coins, drivers’ licenses and official paperwork, as well as in counting years, though many Japanese also use the Western calendar.

But Reiwa’s meaning has generated confusion and controversy.

The first character, “rei,” is often used to mean “command” or “order,” imparting an authoritarian nuance that offends some. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government prefer “good” or “beautiful”, a less widely known sense.

The second character, “wa,” is defined as “peace” or “harmony”, and together they mean “beautiful harmony,” Japan’s consulate in New York said in a bid to dispel confusion.

“It does not mean ‘order and harmony’ as has been reported in the press,” the consulate said in a statement.

The name is chosen by the cabinet, rather than the emperor, from a short list proposed by scholars.

While many Japanese were positive about the new name, to some, particularly young people, it sounded harsh.

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“Do they mean ‘Give in to orders?’ They probably want another militarist era,” said one Twitter user.


The mixed response may reflect a generation gap or a decline in knowledge of kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese and in gengo, said Masaharu Mizukami, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Chuo University in Tokyo.

“To those who don’t know the ‘good’ meaning, it can come across as negative,” he said.

Still, Mizukami said his initial impression of Reiwa was not very positive because of the forceful nuance of “rei”.

The character was rejected during the 1860s, near the end of the Tokugawa shogun’s rule, as its meaning of “command” implied that the emperor, who was weaker at the time, had power over the military rulers, Mizukami said.

Abe added to the confusion with a convoluted explanation of Reiwa’s meaning, saying it meant “a culture nurtured by people bringing their hearts together in a beautiful manner”.

The current era name, Heisei, simply means “achieving peace”, by contrast.

Abe stressed that for the first time the name originated in a 1,200-year-old classic Japanese poem, rather than a Chinese text, as in the past.

That Japanese origin may have been more important to Abe and other authorities than the meaning, which appeared to have been “slapped on,” said Mizukami.


While Japanese debated, bureaucrats prepared for May 1 by updating computer software and documents that almost exclusively use the era name.

Printing shops clattered into action.

Hours after Monday’s unveiling, a factory in Yoshiwara, north of Tokyo, began printing new Reiwa calendars.

Sales had dropped off since Emperor Akihito announced his desire to abdicate about two years ago, said Junichi Ishii, a manager at the Todan Co. factory.

“I’m relieved that the new name was finally announced,” he said as machines whirred in the background.

Reporting and writing by Malcolm Foster; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies, Masashi Kato and Aina Tanaka; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez