Work by bureaucrats to select the next era name gained momentum in November 2011 when Emperor Akihito was hospitalized for bronchial pneumonia.
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An official at the Cabinet Secretariat phoned scholars specializing in Chinese classics and Chinese history, among others, saying, "Let me confirm a location where we can quickly contact you." The official asked the scholars not to reveal what they talked about during the phone calls.
These scholars were unofficially commissioned by the government to come up with proposals on the name of a new era that will follow the current Heisei era. The Cabinet Secretariat official secretly called these scholars to confirm their contact information in case the government will need to officially commission the scholars to come up with new era name proposals.
In February 2012, Emperor Akihito underwent cardiac bypass surgery. The situation within the Cabinet Secretariat's assistant chief Cabinet secretaries' office became the most tense during the current Heisei era.
"We conducted various behind-the-scenes simulations," said a bureaucrat.
Then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan or the then chief Cabinet secretary did not know about the move, according to a source who was then a high-ranking official of the prime minister's office.
At the time, the condition of Emperor Akihito was far less serious than that of the late Emperor Hirohito, who vomited blood in September 1988. Therefore, bureaucrats at the Cabinet Secretariat apparently deemed it unnecessary to report the matter to politicians.
The government cannot make public any move to prepare for a new era name on the premise that the emperor will pass away. Since the previous Showa era, only a handful of bureaucrats have been involved in the selection of a new era name, and these officials are tight-lipped about the matter.
Bureaucrats, who are supposed to be politically neutral, have taken the initiative in selecting a new era name. "It's a customary rule not to allow politicians to be involved in the selection process," said a former high-ranking official.
Three final proposals for a new era name, including Heisei, were shared with the then prime minister and then chief Cabinet secretary by bureaucrats in charge when Emperor Hirohito's condition worsened. While there is one more year before Emperor Akihito abdicates, a source close to the government said, "I guess Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be perplexed if he were informed (of a new era name) too early."
There are estimated to have been a total of nearly 100 name proposals in the past for eras. For the next era, bureaucrats will narrow them down to a few.
"There are three final proposals. We've almost decided on the matter," said a former high-ranking official of the government.
"There are always about three such proposals," another source said.
Politicians will likely get more deeply involved in the process leading up to the announcement of the next era name because Emperor Akihito will hand over the throne while he is alive.
A focal point is when the next era name will be announced. The prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary are expected to take the initiative in deciding on the timing. However, the timing could be affected by the political situation as the Abe administration has been rocked by a series of scandals.
The government is now considering announcing the next era name sometime after a ceremony in February 2019 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Emperor Akihito's ascension to the Imperial Throne. Initially, the government had been exploring the possibility of making the announcement sometime around summer this year. However, some have advised that the government should avoid making such an announcement shortly before the leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this coming autumn.
Conservative legislators also expressed concern that an early announcement "could shift the public's interest to the new emperor during His Majesty's reign." A former senior official of the Abe administration said, "There are some serious challenges all the more because there is still a lot of time."
The selection of a new era name will be discussed at a consultative panel of experts, as was the case with the selection of Heisei as the current era name. However, the government has not yet selected members of the panel nor has it decided on the timing of establishing such a body. Politicians within the prime minister's office could largely influence the selection of a new era name at the final stage of the process.
If the government is to make a decision in a short period of time, it could draw criticism that the process is a mere formality, as was the case with the selection of the current era name. Attention will be focused on the process for selecting the next era name while gaining understanding from the general public. (This is part one of a five-part series)
(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi and Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department, and Hiroyuki Takashima and Nao Yamada, City News Department)