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Bureaucrat at National Archives of Japan played key role in selecting 'Reiwa' era

Akihiko Amako (Photo taken from Vol. 55, No. 3 of the journal of Information Science and Technology Association)
Ken Akiyama (Mainichi)
Kazuhiko Fushiya (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- A little known bureaucrat at the National Archives of Japan played a key role in the process of selecting Reiwa as the next era name from as far back as 2003.

Two bureaucrats visited Ken Akiyama, an expert in Japanese literature, at his home around 2003. One of the bureaucrats was Kazuhiko Fushiya, 75, then assistant chief Cabinet secretary responsible for work to select the era name, and the other was Akihiko Amako, then researcher at the National Archives of Japan who died in May 2018.

Amako, who was born in 1952, specialized in era names and doubled as a Cabinet official assigned to the office of assistant chief Cabinet secretaries.

Akiyama, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, is a leading authority on "The Tale of Genji," a classic work of Japanese literature written by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. Akiyama was selected by the government as a person of cultural merits in 2001.

The two bureaucrats sat at a Japanese-style room in Akiyama's home in Tokyo. They first told Akiyama, "It's not urgent," and asked the professor to come up with a new era name that would replace the current Heisei.

Emperor Akihito was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2002. His Majesty was at an advanced age, turning 70 at the end of the following year. However, the Emperor's condition remained stable after undergoing surgery to remove the cancer. It was certainly not an urgent task to think up a new era name.

It was extremely difficult for government officials to ask experts to come up with a new era name at a time when the Emperor had no option to abdicate. Therefore, it was essential for the bureaucrats to emphasize that it was not urgent.

Of the two bureaucrats, Amako visited Akiyama's home repeatedly to discuss the matter. Akiyama subsequently proposed several era name candidates derived from Chinese classics quoted in Japanese masterpieces to Amako.

Akiyama had revealed the process of proposing era name candidates to the government in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in February 2012 -- before he died in November 2015 at the age of 91.

As an intermediary between the Cabinet and scholars, Amako asked some other scholars to come up with next era name candidates, and collected their proposals. One of the scholars Amako visited was Susumu Nakanishi, 89, professor emeritus at Osaka Women's University who proposed Reiwa, which the government has selected as the next era name.

Three assistant chief Cabinet secretaries are the second highest-ranking bureaucrats at the prime minister's office next only to the deputy chief Cabinet secretaries. Officials from the Finance Ministry have traditionally served as assistant chief Cabinet secretary responsible for the era name. They are typically replaced after serving the post for two to four years. Meanwhile, Amako was constantly in charge of the era name issue for 30 years since he joined the National Archives of Japan in 1988.

Only a limited number of officials are involved in the era name issue to protect confidentiality. None of the past assistant chief Cabinet secretaries in charge of the issue specialized in Chinese literature. Work to select the next era name was left up to Amako.

"I never studied Chinese classics," one of the former assistant chief Cabinet secretaries who was in charge of the issue said. "I only 'managed' the era name issue."

"We relied completely on Mr. Amako for contacting scholars," said another.

Colleagues did not know what Amako, who was often away from the National Archives, was doing.

Amako also visited Tadahisa Ishikawa, 86, former president of Nishogakusha University. Ishikawa is one of the scholars the government had asked to come up with new era name candidates.

Ishikawa, an expert in Chinese classics, has headed Shibunkai, a research organization on Chinese masterpieces, since 1989. He said he talked with Amako at his office.

"Mr. Amako often asked me questions about Chinese literature. He was much younger than me (by about 20 years), so he appeared nervous in front of me," said Ishikawa. The scholar said Amako last visited him in 2017.

On Ikeda, 87, professor emeritus of Chinese history at the University of Tokyo who was commissioned by the government to think up era name candidates, had also been approached by Amako. Ikeda's 86-year-old wife, Ayako, recalled that the official called their family home sometime around autumn 2017 when a special measures law allowing the Emperor to abdicate was enacted, and asked them about how the scholar was doing.

Amako was responsible for checking if proposed era name candidates had not been used by Chinese and other dynasties or were identical to the names of people or shops in Japan and overseas by referring to historical documents and telephone directories, according to those who served as assistant chief Cabinet secretaries in the past.

A scholar specializing in Chinese classics compared Amako to Masuzo Yoshida, an expert in Chinese literature, who helped edit a book that literary legend Mori Ogai authored on the sources of past era names at the Imperial Household Ministry, during a period stretching from the Taisho to the early Showa eras in the early 20th century. After Ogai died, Yoshida came up with Showa as a new era name following Taisho (1912-1926). Showa had never been used as an era name in the East Asian cultural sphere where Chinese characters are used.

However, the details of Amako's duties were known to only a few colleagues. A former official who worked at the National Archives in the 1990s recalled, "We didn't know what he was doing but it was all right. He was given such special treatment. I think that's partly because his main duty was a Cabinet official and he just doubled as an archives official."

Another archives official said they did not even know where Amako was working. "He appeared to have a secret room. I don't even know where he was performing his duties," said the official.

Amako occasionally left the archives after telling co-workers, "Today, I'll go 'there.'" A former colleague who is familiar with the situation said on such occasions, he had a meeting at the Cabinet Secretariat.

An acquaintance has told the Mainichi Shimbun that Amako was related to the warlord Amago clan based on the Sanin region along the Sea of Japan coast in western Japan.

After graduating from Senshu University, Amako studied Chinese classics through the master's and doctor's degree programs at Nishogakusha University's graduate school.

He was hired by the government to work at the National Archives of Japan in 1988, the year before the era name was changed from Showa to Heisei. He was also assigned to the office of assistant chief Cabinet secretaries. He played a leading role in organizing the archives' special exhibition featuring Chinese classics in October 2007. After falling ill, he quit the archives before reaching the mandatory retirement age. However, he was subsequently rehired by the government as a part-time employee and assigned to the Cabinet Secretariat as an official in charge of the era name issue.

The Mainichi Shimbun learned in October 2018 from an academic society and other sources that Amako was living at an apartment in Tokyo. Mainichi Shimbun reporters visited the location but another person was living there.

According to the caretaker of the apartment complex, Amako had previously lived there alone.

"An official junior to Amako visited his apartment on May 19, 2018, saying, 'He failed to come to work,' and found him dead. Police said he died of illness," according to the apartment caretaker. Amako was in his mid-60s.

Mainichi reporters unsuccessfully attempted to interview Amako's younger brother living in the Chugoku region in western Japan. The brother said in a letter to the Mainichi, "I don't know what my brother was doing in his work or personal life."

The brother also wrote, "At my request, a co-worker examined articles my brother left behind and we disposed of most of them." He identified the co-worker at the Cabinet Secretariat by name.

Noting that a massive number of books had been piled up in his room, the co-worker said, "Mr. Amako appears to have loved reading books."

When told by the Mainichi that Amako had passed away, Ishikawa appeared surprised and was left speechless. He then said, "I had a sense of affinity toward him because he was a graduate of Nishogakusha University. It's a pity."

Masaya Takayama, 77, former head of the National Archives of Japan, said, "He found value in his life through Chinese classics. As the change of era name was drawing near, he apparently thought nobody but him could handle the era name change issue."

Amako died one year before the era name will change from Heisei to Reiwa. When "Aki" in Amako's first name and part of the first name of his younger brother are combined, it becomes "Showa." Amako was dedicated to working on era names throughout his career.

(Mainichi)

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