The Japanese Emperor Akihito is abdicating the throne at the end of this month and the Heisei era will come to an end and a new era, the Reiwa era, will begin under the new Emperor, the Crown Prince Naruhito. Translated, the kanji for Reiwa can be read to mean ‘beautiful harmony’ (according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry) which in my mind, is a great followup to the Heisei era (translated as the ‘achieving peace’ era).
And ever since the announcement was made, the name of the era has sparked conversation about the choice of name.
For instance, it is the first era name to be taken from a Japanese poem, and not a Chinese work of literature. Just in case you were curious, its taken from a poem about plum blossoms that appear in Man’yoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry.
Second, although the translation sounds harmonious enough, the first character also means ‘order’ or ‘command.’ Sounds way more ominous and brings back memories of Japan in its more militaristic and authoritarian time (which is probably why the Japanese Foreign Ministry released the official translation above).
And finally, there’s Reiwa, the real estate company in Australia which not only shares its name with the new era, but has received a lot of undue attention and site visits. Might they receive an uptick in business as well?
It’s an interesting choice of name. But beyond that, how is this change of era going to affect my life and yours? Will there be earthquakes and tsunamis? Immense celebration? Maybe in Japan, but in the rest of the world, time will continue its inexorable march forward and only note the passing of the Heisei era with a shrug.
So why should anyone not living near Tokyo care about the passing of an era? It’s a naming convention that fewer and fewer people in Japan even use (aside from official documents, most people just use the Gregorian calendar now. Anyone who uses a Japanrail pass will know what I’m talking about).
Well, I can’t speak for you, but in the short term, it interested me. Maybe its because my ancestors hail from just outside Kyoto. Maybe its my curiosity as a writer that draws me into finding out more about Japan’s era naming conventions. Maybe I could use era names in my stories?
Whatever the case, it made me curious enough to go searching for details about how Japan names its eras. Here is a bit of what I found and how I might use this information as a writer.
This type of era naming convention is known as the Nengo (or Gengo) system. It is yet another foreign artifact brought into Japan from China after migrating its way from other south-east Asian countries. In pre-modern times, how the Japanese named their eras depended a lot on the whims of the Emperor at the time. Sometimes an Emperor would just declare a new era to give his reign a ‘fresh start.’ Sometimes, a new era would be named in the wake of a natural disaster like a tsunami. In modern times, a new era name is chosen only when a new Emperor rises to the throne: “one reign, one era name.” And the names are decided by the government, not by the Emperor.
And how would I use this knowledge as a writer? The answer is probably obvious: it is another setting detail that can give authenticity to your story or novel.
If you write historical fiction set in Japan, especially before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, it behooves you to find out what era your story is set. Even if you never mention it in the story, you should know (someone, somewhere is likely to ask).
But what if you don’t write historical fiction? What if you write high fantasy set in a Japanese-like setting? Or a future Japan (You can ask yourself if the population even uses it anymore and establish how many of their traditions they keep)? This is another way to give your world an air of authenticity. It’s also one more detail you can use to immerse your reader into your world. Just be aware of the many reasons Emperors in the past have used to name their eras.
And if you don’t write either of the above? Or even stories set in Asia? Well, I would be remiss in not telling you that the Nengo system of era naming is unique to Japan or even China. Other cultures in south-east Asia and the Middle East have utilized similar calendars in very similar manners. And we haven’t even touched upon the lunar calendar yet. Let your imagination run wild.
Now this is not the only piece of detail you need to give your story an air of authenticity, but it certainly is a detail you can use. It’s only the beginning. Time. It’s a small detail, but a good one to establish your world by.
So, yeah. The world won’t come to an end on May 1 when the Reiwa era begins, but in the worlds of my imagination, it is likely to set them on fire.
What do you think? Is this style of keeping time useful to you as a writer? Does it spark any ideas that you can use in future stories. Drop me a line and let me know. I’d really like to hear from you.
Personal Appearance Update
Normally, this would be in my monthly update Breathe In, Breathe Out, but this is coming up before then and I wanted to announce where I’m going to be during the month of April:
U of C Student Cafe – April 13 at 2:00 pm at Shelf Life Books. I will be reading from one of my short stories and celebrating the accomplishments of the students in the University of Calgary’s Continuing Education Creative Writing Certificate program. I would love to see you all there.
Calgary Comic Expo – April 25 – 28 at Calgary Stampede Park – I will be at the IFWA Table located in Artists Alley (in the Big Four Building). Come by and say hi. I will also be appearing on as a panelist in the Author’s Journey Panel which will take place on Saturday, April 27 at 3:45 p.m. in the Palomino Room. Join me and four other authors in discussing what the author’s journey is all about.