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3 new era name proposals unveiled to then PM 3 1/2 months before Emperor Showa died

TOKYO -- A bureaucrat at the prime minister's office unveiled three proposed era names, including Heisei, to then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and then Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi about 3 1/2 months before Emperor Hirohito passed away in January 1989, a former senior bureaucrat said.

Takeshita and other top officials at the prime minister's office shared the three proposed era names, including Heisei which was eventually selected as the current era name, for the first time at a meeting on Sept. 20, 1988, the day after the Emperor vomited blood and fell into a serious condition, said Nobuo Ishihara, 91, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, in a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun. Emperor Hirohito was posthumously named Emperor Showa.

Following the worsening of Emperor Hirohito's condition, observations spread within the government that the passing of the Showa era was imminent.

Shortly past 2 p.m. on Sept. 20, 1988, Takeshita, Obuchi and Ishihara met with Junzo Matoba, then head of the Cabinet Councillors' Office on Internal Affairs, and Tadahiko Fukushima, a councillor of the Cabinet Secretariat, who were then in charge of the issue of a new era name, at the prime minister's office.

Matoba explained to the three top government officials that among proposals, he thought "Heisei," "Shubun" and "Seika" can meet the conditions for an era name. Scholars who had been unofficially commissioned by the government came up with these names.

Matoba also unveiled these proposed era names to a consultative meeting of experts that was convened after Emperor Hirohito passed away on Jan. 7, 1989.

When the Era Name Law was enacted in 1979, the government drew up six-point criteria for selecting an era name, such as that an era name should consist of two kanji characters and that any word that is commonly used should be avoided. Some bureaucrats at the prime minister's office had been secretly selecting a new era name based on proposals made by multiple scholars.

At the September 1988 meeting at the prime minister's office, the attendees did not discuss which one should be selected from among candidate names narrowed down to the three in order to prevent such confidential information from leaking to outsiders. The five attendees also agreed not to tell anybody else that the proposed era names were unveiled.

The officials explained to reporters at the time that the procedure for selecting a new era name had been confirmed. Emperor Hirohito's condition subsequently improved slightly.

Ishihara recalled top government officials were busy preparing for a change of era. "On that day, Mr. Takeshita and Mr. Obuchi were rather concerned about whether the situation (concerning the Emperor's health) would quickly lead to a change of era. There were many things to be done besides selecting a new era name," Ishihara told the Mainichi Shimbun.

A former administrative vice minister of the then Ministry of Home Affairs, Ishihara had been serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary since the Takeshita Cabinet was launched in November 1987.

Regarding a new era name, Ishihara said, "I was aware that officials in charge were working on the matter. However, it wasn't until the day (of the September 1988 meeting) that I was informed of the three proposed era names. I think Mr. Takeshita and Mr. Obuchi were the first politicians in the prime minister's office to see those three proposals."

After Emperor Hirohito passed away, the government selected Heisei as the new era name following a consultative meeting of experts and a meeting involving all Cabinet members.

In a book published in 2015, Matoba disclosed that the late Tatsuro Yamamoto, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, came up with the name.

(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department)

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