By Julia Jiang, Chinese and Japanese Translator
On 1 April 2019, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga appeared in front of a large media contingent and revealed a card with calligraphy on it – the much anticipated name for Japan’s new era was finally unveiled: Reiwa (令和).
To give every emperor’s era a unique name – called gengo in Japanese, originated in ancient China. However, as China abandoned this practice after the Qing Dynasty, Japan is now the only country in the world that operates an era name system. With the new Japanese emperor Crown Prince Naruhito taking the throne, the imperative was there to find a new name for his reign.
The impact of gengo can be seen everywhere in people’s daily life in Japan; it appears in places such as on coins, official paperwork and newspapers. The new gengo, “Reiwa”, has its roots in the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, Man’yoshu(万葉集). The two characters mean “auspicious”, and “harmony” or “peace” respectively. Collectively, the new gengo conveys good wishes “people joining their hearts to develop the country’s culture”, says Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It is noteworthy that being a Japanese ritual, this is the first time that a gengo was taken from a Japanese classic— instead of Chinese classics. The previous gengo, Heisei (平成), was adopted from The Records of the Grand Historian (known by its Chinese name Shiji史记), and Showa (昭和), the gengo prior to Heisei, has its roots in one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature, the Book of Documents (known by its Chinese name Shangshu尚书). In light of this background, the choice of the new gengo reflects some political consideration. The Japan Times commented that “a growing sense of rivalry with China has apparently prompted Abe and other key Cabinet members to distance themselves from Chinese literature”.
However, it is questionable whether the new gengo is completely free from the influence of Chinese culture. According to experts, the sentence from which derived the new gengo “Reiwa”, was based on a classic Chinese poem written in the Han Dynasty and was believed to have been widely read by Japanese intellectuals at that time.
Despite political disputes, the inter-cultural dynamics between China and Japan is an interesting topic. Historically, the two languages have impacted and learnt from each other in different times. In fact, the birth of Japan’s new era has drawn much interest from Chinese netizens– with mostly positive sentiment.
Among many language services Chin provides other than Chinese, Japanese language is the most in demand. As the country opens the new era, talk to us if you have any Japanese language needs!