Monday, April 1, 2019

The Name of the New Japanese Imperial Era Unveiled

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga holds up
the name of the new Japanese Imperial Era: "Reiwa"

Earlier this year, I talked about how 2019 was going to be an important year in Japanese history because it would mark the end of the 30-year Heisei (平成) imperial era, and the beginning of a new imperial era whose name would be announced.

 Well, today the name of the long-anticipated name of the new imperial era was finally unveiled to the Japanese public. This will be the name of the era of the duration of the reign of the new Japanese emperor, as a new chapter in Japanese history begins.

Crown Prince Naruhito, pictured with his wife Princess MasakoSource:
Crown Prince Naruhito, pictured with his wife Princess MasakoSource:
Crown Prince Naruhito with his wife, Princess Masako

Crown Prince Naruhito will become the new emperor, when the current emperor, His Majesty Hirohito, abdicates at the end of the month. Thus, the reign of Heisei will end, and the reign of Reiwa will begin.

What's in a name?
Using Chinese characters, or "kanji" as they are known in Japanese (漢字, lit. "Chinese character"),  to name something is notoriously tricky. A Chinese character has three main aspects; its visual or graphical components, its phonetic components, and its semantic components. When a person, place or thing is given a name, much consideration is given to each and every one of these components.

Kanji are magical characters, because different meanings and/or sounds become more, or less prominent depending on how they are used. The trick to coming up with a name is choosing kanji that complement each other, and that result in a desired sound and/or meaning.

To complicate matters, different meanings to a lot of the kanji have come to dominate in both China and Japan, and so what can look and sound beautiful and harmonious to the Japanese, can have completely different, if not indelicate meanings in Chinese.

Take, for example, the kanji 湯. In Japanese it can be read "yu" by itself, or "tou" in compounds. (Though these aren't hard and fast rules in themselves.) By itself, it means "hot water," or "hot bath." In the compound 銭湯 (sento), it means "public bath." 銭 can be read "sen" or "zeni," and it means "money," "coins" or "loose change." So 銭湯 literally implies "paid bath." In Mandarin Chinese, however, 湯 is read "tāng" and it means "soup" or "broth."

The kanji compound for a written letter of correspondence; 手紙. ("tegami" - read "teh-gah-mee"). It is composed of "hand" (手), and "paper" (紙). It makes sense to Japanese readers, because a letter is written on paper by hand. In Mandarin Chinese, the same characters are read "shǒuzhǐ" (show-jee), and the compound means "toilet paper," which makes sense; it's paper you use with your hands after using the toilet.

Separate, the characters for "Reiwa" are 令 and 和. 令 is read "rei," and it has current meanings of "command," "order," or "dictation." It's used in compounds such as 命令 (meirei, "command"), 法令, (horei, "law, ordinance, decree, mandate") and 号令 (gorei, "order, command"). 和 has a few different readings and meanings, but by itself, the most prominent reading is "wa." It has meanings such as "harmony," "peace," "soften," and has come to mean the country of Japan itself. Quite possibly the most well-known compound that 和 is used in is 平和 (heiwa), meaning "peace." The word 和やか (nagoyaka) means "calm, gentle, quiet, friendly, harmonious, peaceful."

So when I first saw this name, it gave me an unsettling feeling. "Commanded," "ordered," "dictated" "peace/harmony?" Peace and harmony will happen "by law?" Does the government intend to make Japan into a dictatorship? Where they issue orders and Japanese citizens obey?
What on earth is this character compound supposed to mean?

Upon closer inspection, the compound 令和 was taken from an ancient collection of poems called the Man'yoshu (万葉集, lit. "collection of a thousand leaves"), where the kanji 令 has meanings of "revelation from the gods," thus "auspicious."

 Here is an excerpt from the poem:
于時初春月 氣淑風梅披鏡前之粉

Note the underlined characters.

And here is a rendition of it in modern Japanese:

Here is a rough translation:

"On this auspicious month at the beginning of spring, the scene of plum blossoms evokes peaceful serenity. Nature skillfully makes herself up in blossoms as a woman powdering her face in front of a mirror. Their fragrance is as the lingering scent of her scent pouch, as she passes by..."

The entire poem sings the praises of spring, beauty and glory after enduring the hardships of winter, auspicious beginnings and the pleasure of being in convivial company.

When 令 appears as a prefix, it means "fine" or "venerable" such as 令嬢 (reijo, "venerable daughter"), and 令息 (reisoku, "venerable son") both used to talk of other people's children. In this case, 令 appears as part of the compound 令月 (reigetsu), which is an old name for February, which was supposed to be a month of good luck, new beginnings, and the best time to do anything.

Thus, 令和 has a meaning of "venerable peace," "auspicious peace," or "peace as was foretold to us by the divine."

I can see now that this name was chosen in hopes that this era will be one of blessed peace.

May the reign of Reiwa be one of much awaited peace and prosperity for Japan, and for the rest of the world!

Related Post:
Oshogatsu: Japanese New Year

Related Link:
The Japan Times Article