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Political parties back new era name Reiwa, but some question use of character for 'rei'

A large group of reporters gathers at the prime minister's office to hear Abe's comments on the new era name Reiwa on the afternoon of April 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Japan's next era name Reiwa won a favorable response from both ruling and opposition parties following its announcement on April 1, though some questioned the use of the character "rei" in the name due to its association with the meaning "order."

Reiwa is composed of two Chinese characters, or kanji. The first, "rei," has meanings including "good" or "beautiful," as well as "order" or "rule." The meanings of the second character, "wa," include "harmony," "peace," "Japanese style" and "soften." Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced on April 1 that the name derives from a passage in the "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was the first time that an era name had come from Japanese literature, rather than a Chinese classical work.

The same day of the announcement, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), commented, "(The name) is not something that was learned from China, or that was heard from somewhere else. It's very good that it was taken from Japan's ancient 'Manyoshu.'" Participants at a meeting of the secretaries general and Diet affairs chiefs of the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito said that the name evoked images of the pleasantness of spring.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi received a phone call from Abe soon after Suga announced the new era name. On March 28, while enjoying viewing the cherry blossoms together in the garden of the prime minister's office, Abe had told Yamaguchi, "I want to make the (next) era one in which hopes and dreams bloom brilliantly." When Yamaguchi was asked by reporters whether he thought this provided a clue for the new era name, he responded, "Thinking about it now, I may be able to find common meanings."

While people generally welcomed the new era name, some received the character for "rei" less enthusiastically. Yamaguchi himself commented, "I thought it was a little unusual. I was a bit surprised." Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, meanwhile, commented, "Everyone was like 'What?' when they saw it was the 'rei' from 'meirei' (order)." Another LDP executive commented, "It sounds a little cold."

Social Democratic Party leader Seiji Mataichi was even more critical of the use of the character than Ishiba. "You can't deny the feeling that it indicates a strengthening of discipline and control of the people, which the Abe administration is aiming for. I strongly request that the use of the new era name does not become mandatory," he said.

However, there was no marked opposition to the name from other opposition parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan released a comment stating "We hope the new era will be peaceful and one in which the lives of members of the public will be calm."

Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, told reporters, "An era name is not something that fits in with the sovereignty of the people under the Constitution, but we do not oppose the public using it customarily."

Abe commented on the character for "rei" at a meeting of the LDP board on April 1, pointing out that it was also used in the courteous words "goreijo" (your daughter), "goreishitsu" (your wife) and "goreisoku" (your son). "People may not be that familiar with it, but 'rei' has a good meaning," he said.

Japan uses the Imperial era name system, which designates one era name for each emperor's reign, along with the Western calendar. Under this system, 2019 is the 31st year of the Heisei era. The new era name Reiwa will come into effect on May 1 when Crown Prince Naruhito accedes to the Imperial Throne following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito.

(Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Medical Welfare News Department, and Shinya Hamanaka, Political News Department)

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