As the Heisei Period draws to a close, how will the name of the next Emperor’s period be decided? Timothy Magarry writes.
On 1 May next year, Japan will enter a new era – quite literally. Parallel to the western calendar, Japan maintains its own regnal year system, and when the Emperor abdicates on 30 April 2019, the current ‘Heisei’ era will officially come to a close.
As era names feature in calendars, software and most government documents, the transition to a new one creates many logistical problems. If there were some way of knowing the next name in advance, it would make the whole transition much smoother.
So, how is a new name actually chosen?
What are the rules?
In 1983, the Nakasone Cabinet published a Declaration on Era Name Procedures under the Era Name Law of 1979. The declaration provides six rules for selecting the next era name. Let’s look at each one in detail.
(The original text of the 1983 declaration: image created from resources at the National Archives of Japan)
- A meaning which fits the citizenry’s aspirations and ideals
This is a common-sense rule. Characters with meanings such as diarrhoea (痢), poison (毒), curse (呪) or death (死) are obviously inappropriate. Equally so are characters denoting everyday objects like soup (汁), desk (机), and roof tile (瓦).
- Exactly Two Kanji Long
Kanji (漢字) is the name given to Chinese characters used in Japan.
The simple reason for this rule is consistency. Most era names have had two characters, though the odd few have been four characters long.
However, this is interesting for another reason. Japan’s era names have traditionally derived from quotes in classical Chinese literature, such as the Four Books and Five Classics. Yet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s affection for ‘unique Japanese culture’, the cabinet announced last month that it will consider Japanese classics in 2019.
(The lines in classical literature from which the last two eras derive.)
However, most of Japan’s ‘classics’ don’t use Kanji. Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Diaries are almost solely composed in Kana, a purely phonetic script. While the renowned Manyoushuu uses only Kanji, it uses them phonetically, making compliance with Rule 1 difficult. Ironically, Japan’s classics may be too ‘uniquely Japanese’ to qualify.
3 & 4 Easy to Read and Write
As the name will feature in official documents, government regulations limit choice to the 2,136 “Characters for General Use”. Journalist Yuko Takashimizu further notes a policy of excluding characters above 15 strokes. The goal is to choose something children can engage with, but mature and traditional enough for society to appreciate.
Even within the 15-stroke policy, ‘easy’ is strictly interpreted. Junzo Matoba, the former bureaucrat who selected the current ‘Heisei’ name, rejected many excellent proposals because they just weren’t simple enough. Indeed, no single character in the past few eras has been more than nine strokes long, and none has more than three components to remember.
Another point to focus on is the difference between on-yomi and kun-yomi readings. Take, for example, the Kanji meaning ‘East’ (東): the on-yomi is ‘Tou’ which mimics the original Chinese pronunciation of ‘Tung’, and the kun-yomi is ‘Higashi’, the native Japanese word for ‘East’.
The official reading will most likely be on-yomi. Japanese speakers linguistically tend to read two-Kanji compounds with on-yomi, and perhaps because of its origins in Chinese culture, no era in Japanese history has ever used kun-yomi.
5 Not Previously Used
This rule includes Japanese and Chinese era and emperor names. It also includes names proposed in the past but ultimately rejected. This means Shouka (正化) and Shuubun (修文), which competed with Heisei, can never be considered again.
It doesn’t forbid the same sound combination, though. Doing so would have led to conflict between the Showa era of 1312-17 (正和) and the Showa era when these rules were published (昭和 1926-89).
6 Not in Common Use
The name cannot be found in place names, people’s names, and proper nouns across Japan, China and Korea. Essentially, the name should be unique.
This is easier said than done. One day after ‘Heisei’ was announced, a village emerged in Gifu Prefecture with the exact same Kanji. In an interview in August, Matoba humorously explained that, despite checking as far as the names of Chinese restaurants and Yakiniku restaurants, his team didn’t think to check every individual village in Japan.
(Junzo Matoba, the man responsible for choosing “Heisei”: Image taken from Mainichi Shimbun.)
The ‘MTSH’ Rule
Matoba ultimately chose Heisei because its initial in English would be different to those of the previous (M)eiji, (T)aisho and (S)howa eras.
Though absurd, there is something to this. Many government materials cite modern Japanese history using these initials as shorthand (e.g. Taisho era year 6 is ‘T6’). It is now well accepted that the next era name will follow this rule, and not begin with M, T, S, or H.
Combination of Old and New
One of Heisei’s greatest commendations was that it combined a previously used character with a new one. As the new era approaches, public speculation consistently rewards predictions bridging the old and new. Indeed, all of the last forty era names going back to the 1600s (and further) use at least one character from a previous name.
At Least Three ‘Mora’ Long
A ‘mora’ is a unit of sound in Japanese, and any two-Kanji combination will have between two and four. Words with four generally have a pleasing ‘ring’ to the ears. In fact, many words are abbreviated to fit this pattern (see below). Three-mora words still have rhythm, but two-mora words can sound too sharp and quick. Across 1300 years, Japan has never had a two-mora era.
So what will the next name be?
We can say with some confidence that the next name will most likely begin with a ‘K’ or vowel, most likely build upon a previously used character, and will probably have four mora. With that in mind, here is a taste of just a few possible options:
Timothy Magarry is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Australian National University College of Law. His background is in Japanese Orthography and Classical Chinese Poetry.
Feature image source: marcelokato