Modern Japan marks time the way most of the world does—with the 12-month Gregorian calendar. However, since the 400s, Japan has also used a second calendar. This calendar uses era names, or nengo. A nengo acts similar to a slogan. It defines the reign of a new emperor as a way to mark a fresh start. On May 1, Japan crowned a new emperor. The Heisei era ended and Reiwa (pronounced ray-wa) began.
Choosing a nengo is a complex, secretive process. Scholars know the name must not contain the first letter of any of the previous four eras: So this time H (Heisei), S (Showa), T (Taisho) and M (Meiji) weren’t options. When referring to the year, Japanese note the nengo and the number of the year within the era. This year is Reiwa 1, the first year of the Reiwa era.
In the past, part of the hush-hush around a nengo was because no one wanted to talk about an emperor’s death or overthrow. But 85-year-old Emperor Akihito announced his abdication (stepping down) in 2017. (Read “Japan’s Emperor to Abdicate.”) Akihito’s era was known as Heisei, which meant “Peace Everywhere.” Therefore, planning the current nengo has been an open process.
A nine-member panel including a justice, a scientist, a novelist, and business and television people worked to select the nengo. Reiwa, meaning “Beautiful Harmony,” began the day former Crown Prince Naruhito took the throne. Reiwa comes from a Japanese poetry anthology from the seventh-eighth centuries, Manyoshu. Experts suggest that the name implies “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.”
In the days leading up to the new emperor’s coronation, talk of the new nengo dominated Japanese newspapers and talk shows. A Tokyo bakery sold decorated Reiwa cupcakes. Trinkets with Reiwa logos sold out at souvenir shops. And copies of the Manyoshu anthology flew out of bookstores and Amazon warehouses.
Today, Japan’s emperor has no political power. Still, the nengo reference to his rule is important in the country’s government. Official documents and calendars commonly require the nengo, and the Japan Mint makes coins with the era name.
Not everyone is happy about the Reiwa nengo. As with most languages, words can have multiple meanings. Some experts say the character, Rei, often means ‘‘command” or “dictate.”
Historian Kazuto Hongo says, “The name sounds as if we are ordered to achieve peace.” To many, Reiwa doesn’t feel like a fresh start.