Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online. This is Kiki and Koko, your Japanese language and culture guides into the next epoch. It’s a momentous time to be alive, to bear witness to this historical event. It’s the end of an era, but the beginning of the next. Some will remember the coronation of Her Majesty, others will remember the unveiling of the iPhone 26 or Rocky VII: Adrian’s Revenge. But, today, we’re here to witness the dawning of a new era; not metaphorically, this is literally a new era and may be one of the few times this phrase will be so literal.
You see, in Japan, the arrival of a new emperor initiates the beginning of a new era. Unlike in the Western world where the current era isn’t really recognised—such as if we were in the Jacobean era or the Victorian era—Japan uses eras that corresponds with the reign of the current emperor. If you’re reading this before 1 May 2019—which is probably impossible unless you’re the editor—then you’d find yourself in the Heisei era. This isn’t just a name used simply for show, though, this comes into use in the day-to-day.
While in the West, and currently in Japan, the Gregorian calendar dates are used, there is but another system that is used. That is where era names come into play. Let’s say you’re in the distant past, in the year 2000. Silver metallic trousers, slap bracelets, purple lipstick, eye glitter, and jelly shoes are the garb, we’re told. The year 2000 would translate to 平成12, heisei 12, or can be abbreviated the new eras H12.
The choice of a new era name, 元号 or 年号, gengou or nengou, is something that is not taken lightly. The kanji, context, and implications are a harbinger for what is intended for the reign and climate for that era whilst the emperor holds office
The 昭和時代, shouwa jidai, or the ‘Showa’ era spans 1926 to 1989. These kanji can be read literally as shining harmony, or shining Japan. 和, wa, is connotative to Japanese style, as opposed to 洋, you, which indicates Western or foreign style. The 平成時代, heisei jidai, or Heisei era spanned from 1989 until 30 April 2019. The kanji in 平成, heisei, can be literally translated as reaching peace, or becoming peace. In Japanese, verbs are placed at the end of the sentence, so 平, hei, is translated as peace.
And, now, we come to the current era, revealed on 1 April 2019 through the presentation of a framed sheet of calligraphy paper, the two characters’ strokes in contrasting black ink. 1 May 2019, we enter the 令和時代, reiwa jidai, the Reiwa era. The kanji referencing a Japanese 万葉集, man’youshuu, poem, written in 万葉仮名, man’yougana, or Chinese characters used for their sound rather than their meaning. (This collection of poems is actually the namesake of 万葉仮名, man’yougana.) The usage of kanji from a Japanese text was meant to bolster Japanese nationalism in its tone. The international agreed translation of 令和, reiwa, is beautiful harmony. Otherwise, the translation of 令, rei, can be translated as orders, ancient laws, command, or decree, whilst 和, wa, connotes harmony, Japanese style, peace, soften, or Japan.
It’s a very interesting dichotomy within the kanji: 令和, reiwa. We, here, don’t take part in Earthling politics, but we understand intention is positive with these kanji, only decreeing peace rather than ordering or commanding Japan. Rather, it’s supposed to present a softer tone of the referenced 和歌, waka, Japanese poem, referencing the plum flowers in blossom, the fair month in spring whence a gentle breeze passes. Due to the beginning of spring, this seemed relevant to the timing of this announcement.
With the abdication from Emperor Akihito of the Chrysanthemum throne due to advanced age, his son, previously known as Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, will become Emperor Naruhito, the new emperor of Japan, at the beginning of this era.
The 平成時代, heisei jidai, or Heisei era, brought with it many hardships, some that still managed to bring the world together, and triumphs that brought us forward. Wrapped within it are the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s. The slang we use, the way we communicate, the technology that has been developed: So much has changed, yet it is a fascinating realisation in how tradition and culture can persist for so many years whilst still integrating social progress. It’s a culture that has been appreciated and enjoyed worldwide, and that common curiosity can bring so many people together.
We usually stick to evergreen content, but the change of an era is something that seemed important and evergreen in itself despite the topical nature. We hope to persist and assist you in your Japanese language journey through the Reiwa era and beyond. But, all in all, our goal through this era is to do our best and help you be your best, doing our best together! Cheers to the start of a new era. Just make it a good one, eh?