Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces the new era name, "Reiwa," during a press conference in Tokyo.
Tokyo CNN  — 

The reign of the next Japanese emperor will be known as the “Reiwa” era, the Japanese government announced Monday, ahead of the coronation of Crown Prince Naruhito next month.

The era, whose name includes the character for “harmony,” will formally begin once the new Emperor is crowned on May 1.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he hoped the new name, which was adapted from an 8th century anthology of classic poetry, “will be widely accepted by the people and deeply rooted in life in Japan.”

Reporters noted that it is the first time that the name of an era has been taken from classical Japanese literature, rather than Chinese.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later held a press conference to explain the full meaning of the new name to the Japanese public.

Noting that the “Manyoshu,” the anthology from which the name was adapted, was “a national book symbolizing Japan’s rich national culture and long traditions,” he said that the name signifies the importance of the country’s culture and the harmony of its citizens.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks at a calligraphy rendering of the new era's name as he leaves a press conference.

He said that the name evokes “Japan’s long history, rich culture and beautiful nature. We will take over these national characteristics to the next era.”

“Like the flowers of the plum tree blooming proudly in spring after the cold winter, we wish the Japanese people to bloom like individual flowers with the (promise of the) future. With such a wish for Japan, we decided upon ‘Reiwa.’”

People reach for a copy of extra edition of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reporting the name of new era.

Sign of the times

Speaking to CNN, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said that many scholars were “twisting themselves into knots into what exactly ‘Reiwa’ means, and whether Abe’s explanation holds water.”

He said the choice of the name mirrors the rightward trend in Japanese politics.

The choice of the ‘wa’ character, for example, which is the same as the character used for the Showa era of Naruhito’s grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, could be “consistent with Abe’s ongoing efforts to try to promote a more positive narrative of Japan’s wartime past.”

He added that the choice of a Japanese text to draw inspiration from, rather than Chinese literature as has been historically used, is “clearly a dog whistle to his conservative constituency.”

The current Heisei Era began in 1989, when Akihito succeeded his father Emperor Hirohito, who ruled during the Showa period and is now known as the Showa Emperor. It will come to a close on April 30, the day Akihito abdicates.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a meeting of the Imperial Household Council to discuss the timeline for the abdication of Japan's Emperor Akihito on December 1, 2017.

Akihito, soon to be known as the Heisei Emperor, will become the first Japanese monarch in 200 years to step down, relinquishing the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who will become the 126th emperor.

japan emperor akihito ripley pkg_00002719.jpg
Who is Japan's Emperor Akihito? (2016)
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Information about how the name of the era was decided and discussions around it have been closely guarded.

A week ago, Suga told reporters that the names of academics and other experts who are advising the government will not be made public, nor will the person or persons who proposed the chosen name be revealed.

Significant marker

Eras are about more than who is the emperor of the day. They are also, for example, the basis of the Japanese calendar system: 2018 was Heisei 30, coming three decades after the era began.

While the current system aligns with the rule of the emperors, this has not always been the case. In the past, new eras were declared to mark historical moments.

For example, the Ansei period, beginning on November 27, 1854, on the Gregorian calendar, was adopted following a number of natural disasters and a fire at the imperial palace. The name Ansei means “tranquil government” and was intended to herald a peaceful period.

Era names can also become political. The Showa era, the name of which can be interpreted to mean “period of radiant Japan,” spanned the rise of Japanese fascism and nationalism, when imperial troops under the Rising Sun banner invaded numerous neighboring countries. This attitude is sometimes called Showa Nationalism.

Japan's Emperor Akihito (R) and Crown Prince Naruhito (L) wave to the crowd during the New Year's greeting ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on January 2, 2019.

Japanese Y2K

While the naming of a new era was a largely symbolic affair, a time for Japan to collectively turn a new page, the transition also presents a more immediate technical challenge.

Microsoft has warned that Japanese computer software, most of which was written in the Heisei era, could face a Y2K moment, because Japanese calendar years are described by a combination of the year and era name.

In the run up to the current millennium, concerns were raised that many computer programs represented four-digit years with only their last two digits. So, the years 2000 and 1900 would be indistinguishable.

Millions of dollars were spent safeguarding against the so-called Millennium Bug.

According to public broadcaster NHK, a survey last month found that about 20% of companies had not checked whether calendars in their software use the Japanese system.

“Industry ministry officials warn that insufficient preparations could lead to unrecognized dates and the possibility of data-processing errors,” NHK reported.