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Toward a New Era: While Taisho, Showa records mark history, detail worries in new docs

This photo taken on Jan. 9, 2019, shows the "Records of the Showa Tairei (enthronement ceremonies)" kept at the National Archives of Japan in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- The year was 1912, and the first Imperial era name change in modern Japanese history to "Taisho" from "Meiji" was hastily put together. That much is clear from examining the records surrounding the decision stored in the National Archives of Japan.

"On July 28, the 45th year of Meiji, due to His Majesty Emperor Meiji's advancing illness, the Prime Minister of the Cabinet has instructed Confucian scholars in the Imperial Court and the government to create suggestions for a new era name," it is written in the "Records of the Taisho Tairei (enthronement ceremony)."

The prime minister at the time was Saionji Kinmochi, and he ordered government officials and others well versed in Confucianism to come up with drafts for the new era name only two days before Emperor Mutsuhito, posthumously known as Emperor Meiji, passed away. The day following Saionji's order, Kokubu Tanenori and four others under the office of the Cabinet secretaries came up with the suggestions "Eian," "Kentoku," "Shotoku" and "Tenko."

Saionji, who had knowledge of the Chinese classics, conducted the selection himself, throwing out the candidates on the spot for such reasons as, "This was used during the Song Dynasty" in China, or "This is part of the name of a Tang Dynasty empress." It was during the third review round that the name "Taisho" was chosen.

Great author and literary scholar Mori Ogai was against the era name. From 1917, the sixth year of Taisho, he served as the head of the then Imperial Household Ministry library. In a letter to his close friend Kako Tsurudo in 1920, Mori wrote that the choice was "the result of a lack of investigation," and expressed his dissatisfaction that Meiji and Taisho had already been used before.

The two names had been used in countries far removed from the center of Chinese civilization, Zhongyuan, or the Central Plain; Meiji had been used in Dali, a city in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, and Taisho in Annam, which is now Vietnam.

"If you use the Imperial era name of a neighboring country, then it has an effect on the legitimacy of that dynasty," explained Isao Tokoro, a professor emeritus at Kyoto Sangyo University.

Four years before the change from the Taisho (1912-1926) to Showa (1926-1989) eras on Dec. 25, 1926, Ogai died of illness at age 60. The inheritor of Ogai's duties of maintaining the list of past Imperial era names and their references was the Chinese classics scholar Yoshida Masuzo, whom Ogai had hired himself.

In the "Records of the Showa Tairei" in the National Archives, it is written that due to the deteriorating health of Emperor Taisho, Imperial Household Minister Ichiki Kitokuro "issued an informal instruction" to Yoshida to propose Imperial era name candidates.

Yoshida then first came up with "over 30" possible names, and his first suggestions were 10 names such as "Shinka," "Genka," "Showa" and "Dowa." He then further narrowed the choices to Showa, Shinka and Genka, and with the approval of Saionji and others, submitted the names to Prime Minister Wakatsuki Reijiro. Unlike the Taisho selection process in which Saionji had thrown out possible candidates one after the other, the choices delivered to the prime minister had already been carefully vetted.

However, dates when these actions were taken are not written in the records. Kuratomi Yuzaburo, the chairman of the now-abolished Privy Council of Japan, which acted as an advisory body to the emperor, wrote in his diary now kept in the National Diet Library on Dec. 8, 1926, before the death of Emperor Taisho, that Ichiki had told him "Showa" was the final candidate.

Returning to the records, along with the Imperial Household Ministry, Wakatsuki privately instructed Kokubu, who had been involved in the Taisho selection, to propose era name candidates. Kokubu submitted five candidates to Wakatsuki. They included "Kobun," which was reported as the final plan by the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, now the Mainichi Shimbun.

In the "summary of the development of the selection of the imperial era name" section of the records, "as a result of endeavoring not to repeat mistakes of the past," the era name Showa is praised as not being a previous candidate as well as not being used in China or any neighboring nation. It is marked the "Yoshida Masazo draft," and believed to reflect his strong feelings about the decision.

Writer Naoki Inose, 72, penned "Tenno no Kageboshi (Emperor's silhouette)," which depicts the story of Ogai and Yoshida. "To Ogai, a nation was built on formalities, and he wrote that the Meiji government was 'under construction,'" he explained. "He passed on to Yoshida his sense of mission that the 'Imperial era naming system is a formality, but it is precisely because it is a formality that it has to be perfected,' and that underlies the Tairei records."

The enthronement ceremony records for Taisho and Showa were transferred from the Cabinet Office to the National Archives when the institution was opened in 1971. They were gradually made public from the 1991 fiscal year to fiscal 2001, and the individual actions and statements of those involved are preserved in the records for posterity as a primary source.

However, for the deliberations of the committee headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that decided the date for Emperor Akihito's abdication in December 2017, the government prepared a summary of minutes based on the "memories of those present" that withholds the identities of who made what statement during the discussion. A formal record will not be made. The explanation put forward by the government was that council members agreed that "revealing who expressed what sort of opinion was not preferable for a day that should be celebrated by all."

It is by a government with this kind of policy that the formal records of the change from Heisei to a new era will be created.

(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department; Koichi Kirino, Science & Environment News Department; and Hiroto Ueno, Saitama Higashi Bureau)

This is the third and final part of a series.

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