Japan Prepares for a New Era

On April 1, the Japanese government officially announced the name of a new imperial era, Reiwa, as Emperor Akihito prepares to abdicate the throne at the end of this month. The name Reiwa, two characters symbolizing auspiciousness and harmony, will be used to set the new imperial calendar that will begin on May 1 when Akihito’s son Naruhito assumes the throne. Prime Minister Abe stressed the importance of the term’s connection to Japanese culture and hoped it would be interpreted as a call for unity as the nation prepares for the transition to a new emperor.

Q1: Why is this a significant development?

A1: While the emperor has no political power, the imperial household performs various official duties and assumes a symbolic yet important role in encouraging the Japanese public. The announcement was, therefore, a momentous occasion in Japan as the title of an imperial era is meant to symbolize how the Japanese people should live their daily lives, but the title also tends to reflect international dynamics. The selection of Reiwa coincides with efforts by Japan to promote regional economic prosperity and security in collaboration with the United States and other like-minded countries.

Q2: What prompted this imperial transition?

A2: In 2016, Emperor Akihito announced his desire to abdicate the throne due to ailing health, which put in motion a succession plan and period of transition that began formally with yesterday’s announcement. The period during Akihito’s reign was titled Heisei, meaning “achieving peace,” which is a powerful symbol for the Japanese people and the international community, given that he succeeded his father, Emperor Hirohito, who occupied the throne from 1926 to 1989 and was a central figure during World War II. Akihito’s 30-year reign was marked by many impactful events including the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy, the end of the Cold War, and the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and partnerships with other countries in the face of various challenges including a rising China and security threats posed by North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Amid remarkable changes at home and abroad, Emperor Akihito emphasized Japan’s desire for peace and prosperity and will be remembered for his efforts to address historical sensitivities from the war. Japan has not engaged in military conflict since that time, and the message of peace is equally resonant today as the security environment around Japan becomes increasingly complicated.

Q3: How important is the name of the new era?

A3: The transition to a new imperial era allows the Japanese population to reflect on current circumstances in Japanese society and carry forth with a sense of renewal buoyed by a new emperor and the symbolism of the Reiwa characters. Reiwa was selected from an ancient anthology of Japanese poetry in which it was meant to convey auspiciousness and harmony, although the character “rei” can also mean an order or command. The second character “wa” was also used during the Showa period of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, prompting some analysts to speculate as to whether Reiwa symbolizes a rightward tilt in Japanese politics. The use of ancient Japanese poetry for the first time in contrast to traditional Chinese texts also generated similar commentary from some observers critical of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy agenda. But resurgent nationalism in the wake of this imperial transition is unlikely as Abe is prioritizing economic growth ahead of parliamentary elections later this summer, pursuing diplomatic rapprochement with China, and implementing a national security strategy based fundamentally on strengthening the relationship with the United States. The dawn of the Reiwa era will more likely focus the public’s attention on sustaining Japan’s economic vitality and diplomatic weight rather than signal a dramatic shift in Japan’s strategic outlook. All eyes will be on Crown Prince Naruhito when he assumes the throne in a month’s time and begins to offer his own perspective on the first imperial transition in the twenty-first century.

Q4: Does this impact the relationship with the United States in any way?

A4: Reports have surfaced indicating that the Abe government could invite President Trump to Japan for a state visit in late May and make him the first foreign leader to have an audience with Emperor Naruhito, a gracious gesture that would reaffirm the role of the United States as the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy. Inviting the president to commemorate a new era symbolizing harmony would be opportune as the two governments are scheduled to soon commence bilateral trade negotiations that could become rather contentious if the administration pressures Japan for market access measures. Just as the Reiwa era is expected to signal continuity in Japan’s character as a peaceful nation, a state visit could serve as a reminder of the shared values and interests that unite Japan and the United States and encourage robust alliance ties going forward.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.

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