Japan’s Heisei Emperor Departs, Taking his Calendar

Japan is said to be on the brink of a new era with the pending abdication of Emperor Akihito effective on April 30, 2019. Of course, new era is usually a tired cliché but in this instance it is quite literally true.

On May 1, 2019, the day after the emperor retires the current Heisei era will pass into history and the new Emperor Naruhito, now 57, will assume the throne under a new, as yet to be determined reign name.

The era name change isn’t just some academic exercise interesting only to connoisseurs of Japanese historical exotica. It will have a very real and personal impact on every Japanese.

That is because Japanese count the years in terms of reign names. This year, 2017, for example is Heisei 29. It is unusual that a country as modern and with-it as Japan would cling to such an old-fashioned method of counting the years.

If nothing more it means that the Japanese will have to reset their personal time clocks to reflect the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is as if people of Britain counted 2017 as “Gloriana 67” or the 67th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

It is not just official or academic documents that use era years. My bus pass lets me know that it expires in Heisei 30, or next year. Filling out a medical form, I come across a peculiar string of letters – M.T.S.H. - circle one. I am puzzled for a moment until I realize they stand for Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisei, the four reigns of the modern era, and the form is simply asking for my birthdate.

For the record, this is Showa 19, or the 19th year of the Showa Emperor, better known to you and me as Hirohito.

Ordinary Japanese themselves get confused about dates, considering that Japan uses two systems simultaneously, including the familiar Gregorian calendar common to the West. Shigeru Nakazaki shows me an app on his iPhone that automatically converts one into the other, like a currency converter.

Of course, his iPhone and everyone else’s will have to be re-programmed once the new era name is official. Numerous other enterprises, such as calendar publishers, eagerly await the formal naming to they can work things into their production schedules.

Better-known Japan Inc. corporations such as SONY tend to avoid using the imperial reign names in their correspondence. “Our products and services are based on the Western Calendar year system,” a SONY official said.

It is likely that a special committee is already working behind closed doors to come up with the era name. The last time an era changed names, a committee of scholars consulted ancient Chinese historical and philosophical texts to come up with the name, which was announced on Jan. 8, 1989, shortly after the present monarch succeeded his father.

There are some fundamental considerations. The new name must fit in a two Chinese-character format and must be easy for Japanese people to remember and use. The actual meaning of the name is less important. It usually has some variation on peace.

The Japanese government formally announced the current era name the day after the death of Hirohito in 1989. The situation this time is unusual in that the current monarch presumably will still be living when the Crown Prince takes over under a new name.

That means there may be agitation to announce the new era name earlier than tradition, so that the calendar makers and all the other people and businesses impacted, can more easily adjust to the new regime.

Akihito’s desire to abdicate has been known for a couple years. In August last year, the Emperor made a rare televised speech directly to the Japanese people. In it he said he was increasingly concerned that his age, now 84, would make it difficult for him to carry out his duties.

He never actually used the word “abdication” as that would imply that he was specifically asking parliament to pass legislation, which would be inappropriate in his position as a constitutional monarch.

However, everybody got the message, and the government began working on passing a law allowing the emperor to formally retire, there being no specific reference to abdication in the Imperial Household law that governs the monarch’s status.

Curiously, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his governing Liberal Democratic Party restricted the abdication legislation to the incumbent alone, rather than creating a broader right for reigning monarchs to abdicate.

Abe was worried about opening the whole imperial system to revision, as there are plenty of divisive issues surrounding the monarchy. Probably the most contentious is allowing women to ascend the throne as reigning monarchs. By law it is restricted to men only.

That is directly related to concerns over the fact that the imperial family in Japan is rapidly shrinking, in line with a seeming lack of enthusiasm for children in the country at large. Unlike the British monarchy, which has in Princes William and Henry an “heir and spare” the future of Japan’s monarchy rests with one 10-year old, Prince Hisohito.

The family is also shrinking as princesses continue to leave the Imperial family to marry commoners and join their families. In such circumstances they must give up their royal title, and become just plain Mrs Tanaka, or whomever.

Opinion polls show that the general public overwhelmingly supports the idea that the female princesses should be able to keep their titles after marriage. Equally large numbers support females rising to the throne.

But the current imperial system is near and dear to conservatives in Japan, including Abe himself. They worry that allowing the princesses to marry opens the way to setting up rival families. Considering all of the weighty issues now on his plate, from North Koran missiles threats to proposals to change the constitution, Abe is no doubt happy enough that this is one issue he can leave to a successor.