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Experts, gov't favored drawing on Japanese literature for new era name

Kyoto University professor and Nobel Prize laureate Shinya Yamanaka, left, and others attend a meeting of an expert panel on the era name, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on April 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Japan on April 1 made a historic turnaround in picking the new Imperial era name "Reiwa," derived from classical Japanese literature instead of the centuries-old tradition of turning to Chinese classics for the name selection.

Behind the move apparently lies Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration's explicit push for an era name originating in Japanese writings. Indeed, three of the six candidate era names that were presented to a panel of experts for selection earlier that day were Japanese-inspired names.

"The sources (for the era names) had thus far been limited to Chinese classics, but this time we also included names deriving from Japanese literature," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained at a meeting of an expert panel on the era name issue, held in a special reception room on the fourth floor of the prime minister's office from 9:32 a.m.

True to his words, three of the six proposed era names were sourced from Japanese literature. Reiwa derived from the oldest Japanese waka poetry anthology, "Manyoshu," while another was from the Chronicles of Japan, or "Nihon Shoki." Of the two names based on Japanese works other than Reiwa, one also had roots in Chinese classics.

At the outset of the meeting, the nine experts in attendance were supplied with envelopes each containing a piece of A3 size paper, folded in two. On the papers were listed the candidate names in the order of the Japanese alphabet, with Reiwa presented last. All of them contained a word linked to "peace," and one of them had a Chinese kanji character "kyu," which means "eternal." Reiwa was among the two proposed names containing the term "wa," meaning "peace" and "harmony."

All attendees provided their opinions about the would-be era names, and Reiwa turned out to be most popular.

"As Crown Prince (Naruhito, who will accede to the Imperial Throne on May 1) likes greenery and mountains, I think Reiwa (which is related to nature) is suitable," one expert said. Another drew laughter by saying, "I have an acquaintance with this name," when talking about one of the six proposals. Amid the amicable atmosphere, the meeting wrapped up in about 35 minutes, shorter than the originally scheduled 40 minutes.

After being informed of how the meeting unfolded, Prime Minister Abe said, "Reiwa was supported by the largest number of people. As Japanese works and literature have a long history, we have an environment in place necessary for selecting an era name from Japanese writings." His remarks came during a meeting of all Cabinet ministers held later the same day to finalize the new era name.

However, one source disclosed that during the expert panel meeting, a senior bureaucrat with the prime minister's office alerted a participant who pushed for a name other than Reiwa, saying, "That name is generally used as a personal and corporate name."

In an evening news show on public broadcaster NHK on April 1, Prime Minister Abe revealed that it was in March that he first saw Reiwa among the candidate names. "I thought the name has a really fresh ring. Unlike names based on Chinese classics, the name naturally evokes a scene," he said, admitting that the term left him with a good first impression.

During a preceding program on TV Asahi, Abe said, "After the chief Cabinet secretary sorted out the candidate names, I had a look at the proposed names, and Reiwa was among them. The chief Cabinet secretary then narrowed them down while consulting with the head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. Today, we heard the opinions of experts after the names were further narrowed down." Abe's remarks suggest that among the roughly 10-20 shortlisted names, Reiwa apparently left a lasting impression.

The government was apparently stuck on a policy of drawing on Japanese literature in devising the new era name. Before the era name was changed from Showa to the current Heisei, all three shortlists -- Heisei, Seika and Shubun -- were traced to Chinese classics. The government then began to study a plan to devise new era names based on Japanese works, and the move got into full swing under the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "There was this way of thinking that for the next era name, we had better prepare proposals deriving from Japanese works," recalled a then senior government official.

In selecting the new era name after Heisei, government officials were aware of the need to avoid terms starting with an H, S, T or M as they are the acronyms of the most recent era names -- Heisei, Showa, Taisho and Meiji. The six shortlists for the upcoming era's thus did not include names starting with those letters.

The government was also keen to avert a situation where the selection of the new era name could be regarded as an explicit attempt to boost the Abe administration.

Among the predictions of the new era name in the private sector were "Ankyu" and "Anshin," both including one or two Chinese characters from Prime Minister Abe's name, but none of the six shortlists presented by the government to the expert panel included the word "an."

During a hearing with the heads and vice heads of both chambers of the Diet held on the morning of April 1, one attendee told Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, "I had thought I should say, 'Authority should be humble' if the proposed names included the word 'an.'"

(Japanese original by Yu Takayama, Political News Department, and Noriaki Kinoshita, Maebashi Bureau)

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