Japan's New Era: A short history of the Imperial Family of Japan
June 19, 20193 min read
On April 30th 2019, Emperor Akihito of Japan abdicated his 30 year throne, marking the end of Heisei era. On May 1 his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, was enthroned as the Emperor of Japan and the Reiwa era began. Japan uses the era system. Everytime the emperor changes, the name of the era changes. For example, when Emperor Hirohito reigned, the era was called Showa. When he died in 1989, he was renamed Emperor Showa. (when the emperor dies, he is renamed with the name of the era he reigned during). This is the first abdication of throne under the modern government, created in 1867. The last abdication of an emperor was back in 1812.
Before the modern period, the name of the eras were frequently changed due to natural disasters like earthquake, flood or famine. When the name of the era changed it was not always a happy time. The fact is, the majority of people didn’t even know what era they were living in because of lack of communication at the time. Emperor Akihito’s abdication is a very significant historic event as Japan had never celebrated the coming of new era along with enthronement of the new emperor.
Japan’s Imperial Family can be traced back 126 generations (including characters in Japanese mythology). The first emperor ever recorded (written in Kojiki, the first Japanese history book, written in the year 712 AD) was the emperor Jinmu, whose great-great-great-grandmother was believed to be Amaterasu; the Japanese Goddess of the Sun and Universe. Therefore, some people believe that the Emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of a Japanese deity.
The emperors’ power and position were often used by the actual ruling powers of times. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate family was in power for 300 years, recognizing the authority given to them by the emperors. In fact, the term Shogun (Short for Seii-Taishogun or “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”) was bestowed by the emperors to legitimize their power over the people. After this, the Imperial Government began (1867-1945) which gave complete sovereignty to the emperor.
When the Imperial Japanese government started in 1867, they decided to have one era name per emperor, so that the name of the era would not change so often. The Japanese government also decided that the emperor would be replaced at his death. (In order for Akihito’ abdication to happen, the current Japanese government had to pass temporarily law to allow him to step down.) Because of this, changing the era was never a cause for celebration but rather for mourning. When Hirohito passed away in 1989, it is said that the entire nation was in mourning, but many debate that as Hirohito was a controversial emperor as he lead Japan’s entry into WWII, or at least let it happen. Every TV station was broadcasting his funeral and none of the usual fun TV-shows were aired. It was not banned, but TV stations were afraid of criticism from the public. I was only 5 years old when the emperor Showa passed, I only vaguely remember, but I know it was not a celebration like Japan has been having this time around.
30 years later with his likable and approachable style, the emperor Akihito has received love and respect from all Japanese people. His majesty and his wife, Empress Michiko, even kneel down and talk to people, which had never ever done before. Therefore when the emperor Akihito confessed the intention to abdicate, the public widely accepted it. It was unprecedented that the emperor himself would express anything that would require the congress and the National Diet (the name of the Japanese legislature) to act upon. It was considered to be taboo as the Emperor of Japan no longer possesses any political power.
The name for the new era, Reiwa, was chosen from old Japanese text of Man-yo-shu, a collection of poems published in 8th century. Reiwa means “beautiful harmony”. Many Japanese people believe changing the era is more than just a symbolic gesture, but an actual major new beginning. Often Japanese people are categorized into their eras (much like millennials, generation X, Y and Z in Western culture). Being a Showa guy, I don’t know what to expect in Reiwa but I sure hope Reiwa will be beautiful and harmonious era for all.
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