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New Japanese era name Reiwa has lifted society: Suga

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaks to the Mainichi Shimbun in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 24, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- Japan's Heisei era came to an end on April 30, 2019, and the Reiwa era began the following day, on May 1. The announcement of the new era name, however, was made a month earlier by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on April 1. The following is a Mainichi Shimbun interview with Suga on April 24 about era names and then Emperor Akihito's abdication.

Mainichi: What do you think about public opinion polls that show that support for the new era name, Reiwa, is high?

Suga: I suppose the name is being naturally accepted by the Japanese people. One contributing factor could be its origin not just in Japanese literature, but in the widely known "Manyoshu," the oldest extant anthology of classical Japanese waka poetry. I thought it would take some more time for people to acclimate to the new era name, so I'm relieved.

Mainichi: Do you feel that the change in era names has had the effect of resetting things anew?

Suga: The new era has yet to begin, but I feel like there's been a positive atmosphere. The abdication (by now Emperor Emeritus Akihito) is a first in Japanese constitutional history, so we struggled over how to handle it. We obtained the understanding of various political parties; created the Law for Special Exception of the Imperial House Law concerning Abdication, etc. of Emperor; announced the new era name and now we're ready for May 1. To be honest, I feel like we've taken a long time to get to where we are now.

Mainichi: What was your impression of Reiwa when you were first presented with it by working-level staff?

Suga: Personally, I thought it had a nice ring to it. I also thought that it would be very easy to read.

Mainichi: The six era names that made it to the shortlist presented to a panel of experts and others on April 1 consisted of three which were derived from Japanese sources and three from classical Chinese sources. What did the process of narrowing the names down entail?

Suga: If I were to disclose the process of selection, it would spark debate comparing Reiwa with the proposals that did not make the cut. It's not that we deliberately chose half of the era names from Japanese literature and half from Chinese classics. We just chose the ones that were good.

Mainichi: Did the administration want to select an era name that had its roots in a Japanese source?

Suga: Not at all. However, members of the panels involved in the selection process were overwhelmingly in favor of using Japanese sources or specifically the Manyoshu. Discussion led far more smoothly toward Reiwa than was initially expected.

Mainichi: Some of the speakers and vice-speakers of the Diet's two chambers as well as some Cabinet members backed other era name proposals.

Suga: We had everyone give their opinions freely. But there was no one who said that they wanted a name besides Reiwa at all costs.

Mainichi: The era name selection process followed the same process as the previous time, when the era name changed only because of the death of then Emperor Hirohito. Are there any plans to overhaul the process, based on changes in the times?

Suga: If it's necessary, we'll respond to changes and review (the process). The average lifespan of Japanese people has lengthened dramatically after World War II, and (Emperor Emeritus Akihito's) abdication itself is a reflection of an era in which Japan's population is aging.

Mainichi: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with then Crown Prince Naruhito at the Togu Palace in Tokyo's Minato Ward before the new era name had been officially decided. Did the prime minister let the then Crown Prince know that the new era name would be Reiwa?

Suga: Definitely not.

Mainichi: What do you think about the ongoing problem that there are very few people eligible for Imperial succession?

Suga: I believe that it's a major problem. A resolution accompanying the Law for Special Exception of the Imperial House Law concerning Abdication, etc. of Emperor states that the issue should be deliberated promptly after passage of the law. I'd like to get on it without any delay.

Mainichi: When will discussions on the issue begin?

Suga: Our first priority is to dedicate ourselves to successfully hold rituals related to the enthronement, including the "Daijosai" Imperial grand thanksgiving rite.

Mainichi: The prime minister has advocated in the past for membership to the Imperial Family to be reinstated for male members of former noble families with imperial lineage on their paternal side. Has he had any changes in his thinking?

Suga: We'll be debating that going forward. I want to refrain from speaking about the issue based on conjecture.

Mainichi: What kind of era do you hope Reiwa will be?

Suga: The academic who came up with the name "Reiwa" said that it has the meaning of "culture being born and growing amid people's hearts drawing beautifully toward each other." That's the kind of era I hope we see. The administration is aspiring toward a nation in which children and the elderly and everyone in between can live at ease under an "all-generation social security" scheme. The era name and the administration are facing the same direction.

(Japanese original by Katsuya Takahashi, Political News Department)

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