by Paul S. Atkins, professor and department chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington
Since 645, Japan has adopted a new era name every time a new emperor has ascended the throne. On April 1st, the Japanese government announced that the current era, Heisei 平成, will be succeeded by “Reiwa 令和.” The current emperor, Akihito, will formally abdicate the throne on April 30. On May 1st, with Crown Prince Naruhito’s coronation, the new Reiwa era will start in Japan.
The new reign name “Reiwa” comes from the preface to a group of poems about plum blossoms that were written early in the year 730 at Dazaifu in Kyushu by a group of Japanese poets attending a banquet held to celebrate the blossoms. The preface was written in classical Chinese and the poems were written in classical Japanese in the 31-syllable waka form. The preface and poems appeared in the first anthology of Japanese poetry, Man’yōshū, which was compiled in the mid-700s.
The preface states that the moon looked “splendid” and there was a breeze blowing “gently” or “softly.” The characters “rei” (splendid) and “wa” (gentle) were extracted from the preface to produce the reign name “Reiwa.” Based on the original context, it means something like “splendid and gentle.”
The impression given by the new reign name is one of refinement, purity, grace, and elegance. It projects the image of a culturally sophisticated and peaceful country.
Much has been made of the fact that the new reign name came from a native Japanese source, rather than a classical Chinese text. That’s personally very pleasing to me, since my field is classical Japanese literature and I have spent many happy hours reading the poetry of the Man’yōshū, including the works of the great poet Hitomaro.
By choosing the new reign name from a Japanese text, the government is signaling that Japan is no longer culturally dependent on China, but possesses its own distinctive history, traditions, and culture. Indeed, this has been true for a very long time, but classical Chinese texts were used as the source of every reign name, up to and including the selection of Heisei in 1989.
Be that as it may, the preface itself was written in classical Chinese and is said to be modeled on earlier Chinese texts. As long as one is using Chinese characters, there is no possibility of full independence from Chinese influence. So that was probably not the goal. The Japanese people of antiquity acquired traditional Chinese culture, incorporated it as a major element in their own cultural practices, and preserved it faithfully. Indeed, the practice of using era names itself was adopted from China, but China no longer uses them.