Japanese emperor Akihito abdicates

What is the significance behind Japan’s new imperial era and emperor?

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | Apr 18, 2019

For Japan, May 1, 2019 indicates not only the ending of an imperial era, namely the Heisei period (achieving piece), which began in 1989, but the simultaneous beginning of a new period: Reiwa.

Japan’s new imperial era (or gengō) will commence on May 1, the same day crown prince Naruhito is expected to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne, making him the country’s 126th emperor.

Naruhito will succeed his father, current emperor Akihito, who has ruled Japan for 30 years and will, at the age of 85, be the nation’s first monarch to abdicate the throne in 200 years on April 30, 2019.

So, what’s behind Japan’s announcement of a new era and a new emperor?

Here’s everything you need to know:

What’s in a name?

Millions of people across Japan paused as chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the name of the country’s next imperial era, Reiwa, during a news conference held in Tokyo on April 1, 2019.

The first of the two kanji characters signifies “order”, in the sense of “orderly calm”, while the second represents “peace” or “harmony”, words which are often used to refer to the country itself. And the new name breaks with tradition.

Reiwa is, in fact, the first ever era name in the history of Japan’s monarchy to be of Japanese origin. The name is the product of an anthology of ancient poems called the Man’yōshū, the oldest known collection of Japanese poetry dating back to the late 700s.

In the past, gengō were – without exception – sourced from old Chinese texts.

During the news conference, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe expressed the hope that Japanese people’s lives would blossom akin to the flowers mentioned in the poetry.

“The name Reiwa means that culture is born and grows when people come together and care for each other beautifully,” he said.

Each era’s name is chosen to exemplify the hopes of the country for the new reign and it is still used in official documents today.

What can we expect from it?

According to the japan times, multiple companies were in a rush to secure the first business opportunities that ensued as a result of the reveal, with firms both preparing and releasing products featuring the kanji for Reiwa.

Within half an hour of the name reveal, American corporation Coca-Cola started distributing promotional plastic bottles Reiwa inscribed, while major e-commerce player Mercari began selling Reiwa mugs and clothing. Others were quick to offer discounts on food and shopping.

Meanwhile, the broader stock market was not greatly affected by the name reveal, however, an increase across several shares could be observed due to their connection with the era’s name.

Shares in advertising company Ray Corp, whose name sounds similar to Reiwa’s first syllable, was up 7.9 percent.

Similarly, shares in Umenohana Co, a restaurant chain famous for its delicate tofu dishes, rose by 2 percent thanks to the firm’s name appearing in a segment of the Man’yōshū poems.

While the land of the rising sun remembers the Heisei period as a time of economic stagnation and demographic crisis, only time will tell the significance of Reiwa. However, one thing is for certain: As many eras before it, Reiwa will be defined by the events that take place during the new reign.