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Toward a New Era: Origin of Heisei era opaque as public records remains inaccessible

Masahiro Yasuoka (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Heisei era, which began on Jan. 8, 1989, will end in about three months. But who proposed the name for this period? No definite answer exists as public documents recording the selection process for the name are not likely to be released anytime soon. Confirming the facts is becoming increasingly challenging as many involved have passed away.

In 2015 Junzo Matoba, an 84-year-old former chief of the Cabinet Councilors' Office on Internal Affairs who was in charge of era name affairs at the time of the change from Showa to Heisei, became the first person to provide testimony on the matter. Japan uses the Imperial era name system, in which one era name is used for one emperor, along with the Western calendar.

Matoba revealed during a TV program and in his book that the proposal of Heisei came from "professor emeritus Tatsuro Yamamoto of the University of Tokyo." A specialist in Vietnamese history, a member of the Japan Academy and a Person of Cultural Merit, Yamamoto headed the Institute of Eastern Culture, the ultimate authority of Asian history, at the time of the era name change. Yamamoto, who later received the Order of Cultural Merit from the government, was considered as the one who came up with Heisei back then, but he passed away in 2001 without divulging anything even to his family members.

Tatsuro Yamamoto (Mainichi)

There is also a popular theory that Masahiro Yasuoka, an independent Yangmingism scholar who died in 1983, proposed Heisei. Yasuoka is known for adding the words, "We have resolved to pave the way for grand peace for all the generations to come," to the Imperial rescript on the termination of the war dated Aug. 14, 1945. He was considered to be a mentor behind the scenes for a number of prime ministers, including Noboru Takeshita, who headed the administration at the time of the shift from the Showa to Heisei era and passed away in 2000.

In January 1990 after stepping down as premier, Takeshita referred to the selection process for Heisei in a speech in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan. The Mainichi Shimbun the next day reported that Takeshita told the audience that era name candidates were made by many scholars including Yasuoka and placed inside a safe at the Cabinet secretariat. Heisei was selected from them, he explained.

Takeshita was presented by Matoba with the three final candidates including Heisei as the next era name on Sept. 20, 1988, the day after Emperor Showa vomited blood and fell into a critical condition. It is possible that Takeshita heard about who made the proposals during the three and a half months before the demise of Emperor Showa.

Noboru Takeshita (Mainichi)

Matoba wrote in his book that "the government's policy was not to use a suggestion from someone who had passed away," and strongly denied the theory that Yasuoka was the creator, saying, It is some kind of mistake" and "impossible."

In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in 2016, Matoba said, "The truth would not have come out should I remain silent, and that would be a disservice to Mr. Yamamoto." He added that Prime Minister Takeshita used to say that "perhaps the process may be revealed after 20 years or so."

Debate over who proposed Heisei is far from over, however.

Junzo Matoba (Mainichi)

In the rolling hills of Hiki in the town of Ranzan in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, stands the Masahiro Yasuoka Museum. The facility houses a section dedicated to Heisei, right next to a reconstructed study of Yasuoka. One of the exhibits in the section was featured as the main front page article in the Tokyo Shimbun dated Dec. 31, 1995, reporting that Yasuoka proposed Heisei. Alongside the news clip is a letter from Yasuoka's second son and the museum's chief director Masayasu, stating, "My father did not say anything about that ... but I have a strong feeling that it was the case."

Museum head Katsura Arai, 83, and executive secretary Kazumi Tanaka, 80, say that Yamamoto presented Yasuoka's idea as his own so that it could be accepted by the government. "That's the hidden truth" they've heard, said the two men. They see this as not contradicting Matoba's testimony.

"Mr. Matoba had to say so (that Yamamoto proposed the era name) because of his position back then, as an official view," said Tanaka. Arai and Tanaka said that the theory naming Yasuoka as the source of the name is "possible, and many of his disciples believe so."

Former Kyodo News managing editor and political journalist Kenji Goto wrote in his book on the Takeshita administration about the Heisei selection process: "Yasuoka came up with the idea first, and another scholar submitted the name after his proposal. Takeshita had a strong affinity with Heisei, which Yasuoka conceived."

Goto visited Takeshita often at his private residence following his resignation as premier, and one day when he asked Takeshita if Yasuoka was the original source, Takeshita revealed, "A different person can submit (the proposal) from someone who passed away." This development was reported on by Kyodo News and the Tokyo Shimbun carried it as the top story on its front page. This article is the one exhibited at the Yasuoka museum.


A third scholar who possibly devised the term Heisei is the late Tetsuji Morohashi, professor emeritus of Tokyo University of Education who passed away in 1982. He compiled the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten Chinese-Japanese character dictionary, the largest lexicon of its kind in countries where kanji Chinese characters are used. The 13-volume dictionary, which was first completed in 1960, had an entry on Heisei, attributing it to the Chinese classics Book of Documents and the Commentary of Zhuo on the Spring and Autumn Annals.

Morohashi lectured about Chinese literature to Emperor Akihito when he was the crown prince, and one of the people who conceived the childhood names of the Emperor's three children -- Prince Hiro for Crown Prince Naruhito, Prince Aya for Prince Akishino and Princess Nori for Sayako Kuroda, who left the Imperial Household after marrying a commoner in 2005. His connection to the Imperial Family is stronger than that of Yasuoka. Morohashi was commissioned by the government to propose the next era name after Showa but he died in 1982.

At the time of the era name change from Showa to Heisei, there was speculation that multiple individuals proposed the new moniker because the government announced that the name was derived from two sources. Behind this speculation is the fact that only one source was credited for the three preceding modern era names of Showa, Taisho and Meiji.

As for Heisei, the government identified as sources a passage in the Chinese classic history Records of the Grand Historian -- "the interior is peaceful and the exterior is stable" -- and another from the Book of Documents -- "the Earth is peaceful and nature is stable." The two passages both mean a state of peacefulness inside and outside the country. However, the Commentary of Zhuo on the Spring and Autumn Annals, referred to in Morohashi's dictionary, included both phrases. Many scholars of Chinese studies said back then that citing this source would have rendered a second reference unnecessary.

Meanwhile, many era names in the Edo period (1603-1868) or earlier had multiple sources. Those instances include one proposal from multiple sources, and the same proposals from different individuals using multiple references, all compiled in a book. Its editor and professor emeritus of Kyoto Sangyo University Isao Tokoro says that who was the original conceiver of Heisei "still remains (hidden) in the woods."

One possible solution, says Tokoro, is "to acknowledge the possibility that Yasuoka and Morohashi both proposed it, and Yamamoto, under a new government commission, came up with the idea based on the Records of the Grand Historian, putting together the expertise of Chinese and historic studies."

Meanwhile, Hajime Sebata, associate professor of Nagano Prefectural College who specializes in the Imperial Household and the management of public documents, is worried about the current state of affairs concerning the era name selection.

"It's problematic that speculation is rife about who proposed an era name and information gets twisted," says Sebata. "Facts can be confirmed by releasing public documents recording the process."

A Mainichi Shimbun inquiry has found that the Cabinet Office is holding documents related to the Heisei selection process, which took place in 1989, up until 2044, far beyond the legal retention limit of 30 years before their handover to the National Archives of Japan. Sebata said that the decision to make such documents public "should be made by the archives, not the Cabinet Office."


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