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Toward a New Era: Struggle to justify coexistence of 'emperor as symbol' and era names

Emperor Akihito signs government ordinance papers officially changing the era name from Showa to Heisei at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Jan. 7, 1989. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- Japan's era names are based on the idea that the emperor has control over time. They were retained even after the emperor was reduced from "the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty" under the Meiji Constitution -- also known as the Constitution of the Empire of Japan -- to a symbolic figure who "shall not have powers related to government" under the present-day Constitution drafted after Japan's defeat in World War II.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese government struggled to justify the logical inconsistency of this.

A move to legislate era names based on the emperor's new role as a "symbol of the State and of the unity of the People" was made in 1946, a year after the end of World War II. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida approved a bill on Nov. 8 for a government decree that would stipulate era names, without any mention of the emperor's involvement in the process, which had been clearly spelled out in the Meiji Constitution. The new Constitution of Japan had been promulgated just five days earlier, and the government was still trying to figure things out.

It was the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Allied Occupation that put the brakes on the attempt. The back-and-forth communications between Japan and the GHQ that were kept by the Japanese side have been preserved at the National Diet Library. Tatsuo Sato, then deputy director-general of the Legislation Bureau, had saved handwritten notes of discussions stamped "confidential." The person from the GHQ speaking at a Nov. 15, 1946 meeting was Charles Kades, deputy chief of the civil administration section and part of the team that had drawn up a draft for Japan's new Constitution.

The notes say the Japan side expressed concern that without a legal foundation for era names, the public would worry over the fate of the practice, and that it was a matter of public sentiment. The notes indicate that Kades answered, "The era name system makes the imperial system clear. It implies that the emperor is treated as an authority in counting the years, and that would rub the other Allied Powers the wrong way." Japanese officials argued that it was "purely a matter of the state" that was "separate from acts under the Imperial House Act, and fell under acts under laws governing general matters of state," emphasizing a split between era names and the emperor. The GHQ, however, understood the link.

Four days later, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshida retracted its Cabinet decision. The Imperial House Law of 1889, which stipulated the procedures for establishing era names, and the Meiji-era regulations on accession to the throne were abolished when the new Constitution went into effect on May 3, 1947. This meant that the era name "Showa" lost its legal basis, and simply became a tradition.

However, Kades also said the following, according to the notes of the Nov. 15, 1946 meeting: "I won't deny the Japanese the use of the current era name," and, "You're free to legislate era names into law after the Allied Powers pull out of Japan."

Katsutoshi Takami, professor emeritus at Hokkaido University who is well versed in the process through which the Japanese Constitution was enacted, explains, "The GHQ was extremely wary of Japan reviving anything linked to the authority of the emperor while it was under Allied occupation. It was concerned that any such move would reignite the international push to prosecute Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) in the then ongoing International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo War Crimes Trial)."

In China, where era names originated, a "one era per emperor" system was adopted starting in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty as a general rule, and the era name did not change until the emperor died. "The lifetime of an emperor came to equal an era, tying together the notion of time with the physical body of an emperor," says Takeshi Hara, a professor of the history of Japanese political thought at the Open University of Japan.

When rule by the Tokugawa shogunate ended and the Meiji era began in 1868, statesman Tomomi Iwakura proposed the "one era per emperor" system, because it meshed with the vision of the emperor as the head of state that the Meiji government was aiming for. The argument of conservatives today who demand that the new era name be announced after the new emperor succeeds to the throne and believe in the "inseparability of the emperor and era name" are rooted in this context.

The Era Name Act that was enacted in 1979 at the urging of conservatives and for the most part followed the 1946 draft that attempted to separate the emperor from the era name.

"The point of the Era Name Act was to split (the emperor from the era name)," says Hokkaido University professor emeritus Takami. "Using the era name as a way to give the emperor authority is undesirable."

The bureaucrats at the prime minister's office who call for formally announcing the era name prior to the new emperor's succession complain that the very conservatives who made the Era Name Act are now going against the law's intent.

The abolishment of era names was hotly contested during the time of Emperor Showa, as they contradicted the Constitution's proclamation that "sovereign power resides with the people." We hardly hear such arguments now even as we approach a change in era name, which will have a great impact on people's lives. Conservatives may see it as proof that the emperor is effectively "the head of state," but it is the public's strong support for Emperor Akihito, who has given his whole body and soul to fulfilling his role as a "symbol of the State and of the unity of the People," that has led to the acceptance of era names as a natural part of their daily lives.


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