Updated: May 15, 2019
It isn't a new day, it isn't a new year, it's a new era! The excitement in Japan was fun to watch over the past week. Japanese citizens, given a 10-day holiday nationwide in celebration, hardly know what to do with themselves with this unexpected amount of free time. Some complain they'd rather be at work.
Heisei, the era name assigned to Emperor Akihito, has now officially changed to Reiwa, for his son Emperor Naruhito as he replaces his father on the Chrysanthemum Throne. The two written characters in blue above were the ones chosen to spell the name of this new era, and herein lies an opportunity to reflect on the many complex levels of the Japanese written language.
The two Chinese characters spelling Reiwa were inspired by an ancient collection of Japanese poetry from the 8th century which also includes poems most likely handed down in oral tradition preceding the importation of the Chinese writing system. Prior to the importation of Chinese characters, Japanese was only a spoken language. So when reading The Manyoshu, or "The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves," one must remember that many of these words were matched to written pictograms relatively recently, in the 5th century AD.
The two Chinese characters, kanji selected carefully by the Imperial Household for this special name, are written in a calligraphy art exhibition by two different artists in this video below during some of the celebrations taking place around Tokyo, posted by The Japan Times, one of Japan's major news outlets:
The definitions of the two characters, according to Prime Minister Abe, are "beautiful" and "harmony." Beautiful harmony. That sounds lovely, but perhaps PM Abe chose these English words to make it easier for foreigners to understand. For those who know Japanese, there is much more to the meaning of these characters than this.
The character Rei here is also a classical reference to the month of February, which is Emperor Naruhito's birthday month, and in addition to the meaning of "choicest" or "chosen" as in the poem above, Rei can also mean "order," "direction," and "command." The character can imply discipline and hard work, appropriateness, and imperative. Wa in addition to "harmony," can also mean "peace," and "coming together," and is used in compound words like "reconciliation" and "compromise." There is a gentleness and sweetness about Wa. The combination of the two characters are in balance themselves, with the strong, masculine energy of Rei in counterpoint to the feminine steadiness of Wa.
This is the beauty of the Japanese language which delivers substance beyond words, held delicately in both the ancient sounds of Japan and sophisticated images of the pictograms integrated from written Chinese into Japanese, which is a language with a completely different pronunciation and grammatical structure.
The hidden mission statement in the name Reiwa rings true. The name created from a combination of these two kanji holds wisdom and encouragement for the imperial couple who will now walk this unique path like no other before or after them. Some in Japan are cynical due to the many challenges ahead, but the clarity of vision here contains guidance for our expectations and sincere efforts.
We at JapanFest, Inc., an educational nonprofit 501(3)(c) dedicated to strengthening the ties between the United States and Japan, wish for Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako excellent health and great good fortune in the years ahead as they continue their meaningful work in contributing to the well being of Japan, Asia, and the world.
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