Today, April 30th, Japan’s Emperor Akihito abdicates. He became the Emperor in 1989.

Japan’s Emperor is a purely symbolic role. Technically, it’s a constitutional monarchy, but I’m not sure of what official governmental roles the imperial family actually fulfill except to be symbols of Japan.

Japan tells time by eras, like many historical periods. There’s the Edo-jidai or Edo Period, from 1603 to 1868, when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled over a not-very-centralized Japan. That’s when Japan sort of isolated itself and there were a lot of samurais running around and some Dutch people came to trade and the Japanese gave them a punky island that they made them stay on in Nagasaki Harbor.

In 1868, the Emperor Meiji came to the throne and the Meiji Era began. The Meiji Era is considered Modern Japan and since then, each emperor corresponds to an era. The era name is symbolic and after the emperor dies–or abdicates–he will become known as the Emperor Era Name.

Which is why Emperor Meiji is always called Emperor Meiji even though his given name was Mutsuhito. When he was living, Emperor Meiji was just known as the “Tenno heika”–His Majesty the Emperor. When Meiji died in 1912, the Meiji Era came to an end and the new emperor’s era, the Taisho Era, started.

When I traveled to Japan in 2017, one of the places we visited in Tokyo was the Meiji jingu or Meiji Shrine, because after his death, Emperor Meiji became semi-deified.

Haiku written by Emperor Meiji

Meji jingu

After Emperor Taisho died in 1926, his son, Hirohito, became the emperor. Hirohito was emperor during the era of Japanese expansion in Asia and World War Two–which is when, incidentally, Tokyo was firebombed so badly that the original Meiji Shrine (and a bunch of other buildings) burned down. I remember my grandma telling me about how all the Japanese heard Hirohito’s voice for the very first time in 1945, when he addressed the nation over the radio and told them they were surrendering.

Hirohito died in 1989 and his posthumous era name became Emperor Showa.

He was emperor for a really long time. My grandma, my mother, and I were all born during the Showa Era.

His son is Akihito, who ruled over the Heisei Era. When his son Naruhito becomes emperor tomorrow (well, today, considering time zones), the new Japanese era of Reiwa begins.

Reiwa means beautiful harmony, apparently.

Reiwa being announced. Photo credit: Eugene Hoshiko for AP

In Japan, the era name is not just a historical period or a symbolic name. The era name goes on all official documents–passports, birth and death certificates, digital and Internet things like Unicode.

3 thoughts on “Reiwa!

  1. Reiwa is a beautiful name. What it means is very fitting. 🙂 I know very little about Japanese culture, so I didn't know what purpose the emperor the served, but it sounds more important than the monarchy in Britain given how the eras change and everything.


  2. I mean, like, maybe, but I literally have no idea what they do other than be symbolic and have era names. At least Elizabeth II meets with her prime ministers and opens Parliament and stuff. The Japanese royals don't do that.


  3. That's a wonderful name for the next era! I didn't realize the last one was so short (in comparison). Honestly, I've always wondered why there's never any news about the monarch, since many symbolic ones in the world do tend to love the spotlight.


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