Today is indeed a unique day in the history of the world, more specifically in the country of Japan. Yesterday marked the end of a literal era, the Heisei Era (meaning “peace everywhere”), of Japan, which began on January 31st, 1989 when Emperor Akihito (明仁) ascended the throne shortly after the death of his father, Emperor Showa (昭和), known during his lifetime as Emperor Hirohito (裕仁). Unlike the last succession of the title which was marked by the death of the emperor, Emperor Akihito decided to abdicate, citing health reasons making it difficult for him to continue with his royal duties. With his abdication, his son, Crown Prince Naruhito ascends to the throne today, now Emperor Naruhito (徳仁). The former Emperor will only posthumously be known as Emperor Heisei and until such time will be have the title of “Joko” (上皇) or Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
Uniquely to Japan, with the Crown Prince’s ascension comes the beginning of a new era, now known to the world as the Reiwa Era (令和) with a translated meaning of most closely the phrase “beautiful harmony”. Like Naruhito’s father and grandfather before him, he will also eventually posthumously take on the name of his era as well, but what a wonderful name to take! Similar to their British counterparts, the royal Chrysanthemum family acts as more of a figure head within the Japanese nation and government, acting as a symbol of unity for the country, performing various social and ceremonial duties. In this way, the name of an era has great significance in Japan as it tends to reflect ideals of a generation and the Imperial Family has lived through many generations, with many goals, difficulties, and a never ending pursuits of progress.
The Imperial Family’s power and position in society has changed vastly over the years and dates back more than 1500 years. The family’s connection to the Shinto (神道) religion, the family being said to be direct descendants of the goddess Amaterasu, kept them in high regards among the Japanese for generations, though this did not always translate to direct power to rule over the country as a whole (in fact, this power was often usurped by various Shogun, who would “ask” for the Imperial Family’s blessing in ruling Japan as a type of dictator). It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) of 1868 that true power was more fully restored to the Imperial Family, though it was again stripped down to more ceremonial functions with the ending of World War II.
Today, many Japanese see the Imperial Family in a highly favorable light as they encourage Japan to grow and work together in harmony with themselves and others. This inspiring message is clearly reflected in this new Reiwa Era’s title. Heisei (平成) was a time of recovery. Particularly of note, Japan had to work to recover from the economic bubble collapse and later from damages suffered during the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami (東北地方太平洋沖地震). Despite struggles faced by the nation during this era, the resolve of the Japanese people has never been stronger to unite in harmony, highly reflective of age old Japanese priorities and ideals. Thus “Reiwa” truly embodies goals Japan has for its future. How appropriate is it that this “beautiful harmony” would be what we call this new era with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games but a year away?
So today, if you were born after January 31st 1989, you can officially say you’ve lived through a royal succession of power in Japan, the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. So congrats to you! And of course, congratulations to the Royal Imperial Family, for having a succession occurring on a positive and happy note. As a family of many generations acting as role models to their people as well as to working to lead others towards prosperity, it is a wonderful thing that they may all celebrate this coming new era together. Family is, after all, the most important thing that we will have in our lives.
With best wishes to Emperor Emeritus Akihito and the newly crowned Emperor Naruhito,