Reset to Zero

Announced on 1st April, to give calendar makers a whole month to scramble to integrate it into their files, the new Japanese reign era will be: Reiwa (a subject first remarked up on on this blog here). 2019 will bridge the last four months of the outgoing Emperor’s Heisei era, as well as the first eight months of Emperor Naruhito’s reign, which is sure to be a colossal pain in the arse for lawyers trying to read Japanese copyright dates hereafter.

Previous era names have been drawn from Chinese classics, at least officially, although nobody dares to point out what a colossal fudge this is. The last era name, Heisei, was supposedly drawn from two, which is to say, one word from each. That’s such a half-hearted, hand-wavy justification that it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Naruhito’s reign should begin with a statement that lifts a phrase from a medieval Japanese poetry book, the Manyoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.

The words rei and wa crop up in the preface to a cycle of thirty-two poems about plum blossoms, translated by Edwin Cranston in A Waka Anthology as: “It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft.” Choice here doubles for proclamation, as an archaic term for the moon that proclaims the new season; soft for peace – I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the selected words weren’t “old geese” and “winecup”, which could have been the new era’s Boaty McBoatface.

This isn’t the first time that the Manyoshu has cropped up in NEO’s transom. The sadly obscure sci-fi series Blue Submarine No. 6 came spattered with quotes from it, and Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words drew its title from another of the poems. I spent most of April Fool’s Day manfully resisting the temptation to offer fake explanations online. Reiwa, written with different characters, also means “illustration”, which manga creators are sure to have fun with for the next few decades. Somewhat more ominously, it also means “zero-sum”, an apt but rather chilling portent of the struggles ahead in the 21st century, as nations get increasingly bullish over the allocation of resources in times beset by climate change and energy crises. Although one more chance pun probably has them doing the Macarena in celebration at Gainax, since their iconic anime character Rei Ayanami probably just got a whole bunch of new merchandise opportunities.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.

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