Delving into the Intangibles

   A double life? from Heisei to Reiwa  

On the Coronation Day of the new Emperor, May 1, 2019, all of Japan is in a festive mood, crowds are flooded into the streets of Tokyo, chanting and scrambling for extra issues of newspaper: a total helter-skelter covered by both national and foreign TV crews. This is how the new era of Reiwa has started, failing to live up to its intangible meaning of “Beauty and Harmony,” handpicked superbly from the 8th century anthology of Japanese poems Manyo-shu. New York Times translated this “Order and Peace,” but I like “Beauty and Harmony” better.

It might be a little difficult for foreigners to understand the recent events in Japan. The cause of this exists simply in the Japanese traditional calendar system.

Well, let me explain.

In parallel with the Gregorian calendar, we give the era names based on the reign of the emperors. As a result of this, as from May 1, 2019, we are also in the same day and the month of the 1st year of Reiwa era, switched overnight from that of Heisei.

Looking back on history, we learn that a similar system was long practiced in Asian counties such as China, Korea, Vietnam etc., but now it has disappeared without a trace, except in Japan, where the Emperor reigns but only symbolically. So our unique-in-culture, “era calendar” can be listed as a kind of endangered species.

One century is a period of 100 years. Based on this tangible time unit, we can understand the sequence of history very well, but we Japanese feel something is lacking, say, a “scent of the time” we live in. In this respect, the era name or Gengo has the power to evoke nostalgic memories that cannot be expressed only in numbers. On hearing the word of eras like Heisei, Showa, Taisho, or Meiji, so many emotions and images surge up vividly to the mind of Japanese people. That is the merit of it, since we can live a double life. It’s a luxury in a sense.

Once the origin of the word of Reiwa is known, the overwhelming majority of Japanese people have accepted the word Reiwa favorably. In this combination of two simple tangible ideograms, we can feel the touch of the Intangibles: history, culture, tradition, and sensitivities of the Japanese. I, too, am ready to embrace it with pride and joy.

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