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The New Era Name

The name for Japan’s next era, which starts on the first of May with the accession of the new Tennō, was announced yesterday: Reiwa (令和). The announcement was made at 11:41 yesterday morning, and it has dominated the news since.

Much of this news has been about people’s impression of the name. My daughter (age 11) was unimpressed, and thought that it sounded like it had been chosen by a bunch of old guys. Which is accurate. As a sound, it has grown on me, and I think it will be fine.

Another important factor is the meaning of the name. According to Prime Minister Abë, who probably had the final say on what was chosen, the meaning is “As people bring their hearts together in beautiful harmony, culture is born and grows”.

If we look at the meaning of the characters, things are a little more complex. “Wa (和)” means harmony, or peace, or Japan. It is a common character in era names; it has been used 20 times, most recently in Shōwa, the era from 1926 to 1989.

“Rei (令)”, however, has never been used in an era name before. One of the meanings is “good” or “auspicious”, and it is used as an honorific when talking about other people’s families: “令嬢 (reijō)” is a very polite way of referring to someone else’s daughter. People have very occasionally used it to refer to my daughter, but it is uncommon, because it is very polite. This is the intended meaning, and the US media apparently translated “Reiwa” as “auspicious peace”. (I’m relying on Japanese media reports of what the US media said, so I don’t know which bit of the media that was.)

However, the primary use of “rei” means “an order” or “law”. It means someone with authority telling you what to do. This is why the British media translated “Reiwa” as “order and harmony”. You could also translate it as “command to be Japanese”, but I suspect that everyone involved would repudiate that interpretation. Part of the point of an era name is that, as only two characters, it can be interpreted in many different ways, so providing a single interpretation is somewhat dishonest. “Auspicious Harmony” is probably the best option if you have to offer a quick English version.

Another significant feature is the source of the characters. Japanese era names are always drawn from an ancient text, and until this one they had always been taken from Chinese texts. Reiwa, however, is taken from the Man’yōshū, the oldest surviving Japanese poetry collection, from the eighth century. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with taking Japanese era names from Japanese literature, but official statements have emphasised the history and quality of Japanese culture, so this was clearly also a deliberate move to make the era name more “Japanese”. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Man’yōshū was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and, as nobody even needs to be told, the whole concept of era names was taken from China in the first place.

It is basically impossible to disentangle traditional Japanese culture from Chinese influences, as can be seen in Shinto, where the Kokugaku movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries aimed to get back to the way Shinto was “before Chinese influence”, and failed. It is like trying to disentangle traditional British culture from Roman or Christian influence; it cannot be done. That influence was a central part of the traditional culture.

In any case, I hope that the next era lives up to its name as a time of auspicious peace, harmony, and culture.

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