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Japan Political Pulse: The tradition of Japan's era names

The Heisei Era will end on Dec. 31, 2018 and a new era will start on Jan. 1. So reported the Sankei Shimbun in its morning edition on Jan. 10 -- and almost all other media outlets in Japan followed. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was pressed to provide an explanation at a news conference, but he sidestepped the issue, saying, "I am not aware of it." The nuance of his response suggests that the reports were accurate.

No one is saying we have no need for a new era name.

Immediately after World War II, when the Emperor's responsibility for the war was questioned, the proposal to abolish era names held the upper hand. Era names were criticized as being irrational, anti-democratic and not translating well in international society. Following various meanderings, such talk died down, but that didn't necessarily mean that the issue of era names became settled in society. Though people may not openly deny era names, there are probably many people who think they are unnecessary.

I, however, am not one of them.

It is commonly accepted that era names began with the Jianyuan era under the reign of China's Emperor Wu of Han who ascended the throne in 141 B.C. Japan's oldest era name is "Taika" (645) under Emperor Kotoku. Since then, Japanese era names have developed uniquely.

Long ago, new era names were not restricted to imperial succession; sometimes they possessed the significance of resetting the age, occasionally under the pretext of good or bad omens. It was during the Meiji period that the system of assigning one era name to one emperor became established. The Imperial Household Law of 1889 stated that "a new era shall be established, and shall not be renamed during the life" of the emperor.

Following World War II, the current Imperial House Law, which was revised under the guidance of occupation forces, eliminated this stipulation, and era names thus lost their legal footing. The use of era names became a mere custom, and it was even rumored that Showa would be the last era. It was with a sense of crisis that the Liberal Democratic Party administration collaborated with central forces to pass the Era Name Law in 1979 (the 54th year of the Showa era). The law has but two articles:

(1) The era name shall be determined by government ordinance.

(2) This shall be altered only upon imperial succession.

This is Japan's shortest law. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing to revise the era name in two years in accordance with this law.

The years leading up to the establishment of the Era Name Law represented the final peak of debate over whether era names should continue or not. One of the arguments of those in favor of abolishing era names was "they are relics that only apply in Japan" -- a stance that we would now term "globalism."

The critic Tsuneari Fukuda (1912-1994), however, said that such debate was nothing more than "an expression of a pro-foreign mindset, unchanged in nature since the Meiji period." This could be described as a Western complex. (Fukuda's comments appeared in Dec. 6, 1976 contribution to The Yomiuri Shimbun titled "Era names and the Western calendar should be made a double option.")

Fukuda made the following points:

* Ending era names means cutting off history and tradition, and the devastation of culture. For example, if one talks of the culture of the Genroku or Tenmei eras, it produces an image in one's mind, but with the Western calendar, one has no idea.

* Unifying dates with the Western calendar is like forcing people to say "180 milliliters" instead of "ichi go" (one go) of sake. It snatches away atmosphere and cramps society.

* Why do Japanese, Jews and Arabs who aren't Christians have to stick to the Christian era in the first place?

It was on Jan. 1, 1978, that the date on each page of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper switched from the Japanese era year to the Western year. But in articles, the era name was kept for over 10 years after that. Out of consideration of the feelings in people's lives, overbearing regulation was avoided. With the change of the era, the paper saw progression toward unified use of the Gregorian calendar, but it also allowed writing the era name. A continuation of that practice leads us to the present.

We have no "moldy" era names. There are a little over 700 days left until we will witness the 247th era name change since the Asuka period. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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