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Nick Kapur
+ Your AuthorsArchive @nick_kapur Historian of Japan and East Asia. I only tweet extremely interesting things. Author of "Japan at the Crossroads," out now from Harvard University Press. Apr. 01, 2019 5 min read

A thread on how to understand/translate Japan's brand new imperial era name "Reiwa" (令和).

To ordinary Japanese people at first glance (including many of my friends yesterday), the character 令 means "to order" or "to command" and 和 means "peace," "harmony," or "Japan" 1/

This leads to vaguely unsettling lay translations such as "commanding Japan," or "commanding harmony."

和 was also the second character of the disastrous "Shōwa" (昭和) era of Emperor Hirohito, which included militarism, World War II, atomic bombings, and defeat. 2/

However, the Japanese government and various literature experts assure us that the characters for Reiwa were selected from a more than 100-year-old poem about plum blossoms, from the Man'yōshū imperial anthology. 3/

The original poem's line: 初春の「令」月にして、気淑く風「和」ぎ、梅は鏡前の粉を披き、蘭は珮後の香を薫す

"Now is the *splendid* first month of spring, the weather is fine, and the wind grows *soft*. Plum blossoms open as powder before a mirror, orchids smell sweet as perfume" 4/

Since the character "rei" was supposedly taken from the first character in the archaic term "reigetsu" (令月) meaning a splendid/felicitous/auspicious month, numerous experts have emerged to say an "accurate" translation of Reiwa would be something like "Splendid Peace." 5/

They also point out that this older meaning survives in modern Japanese in honorific usages such as 令嬢 ("your honorable daughter") or 令息 ("your honorable son"). 6/

But insisting on a translation that honors only the original Man'yōshū poem is to take the government's explanation entirely at face value.

The truth is that Japanese Imperial era names can be multivalent, and Japanese people have long known this. 7/

It is crucial to note that the new era name was approved by the Cabinet, based on the recommendations of experts. Being approved by the Cabinet, this means it was also approved by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. 8/

Abe is a law-and-order social conservative (leftists might say "reactionary") who has openly expressed his desire to revise Japan's constitution to get rid of the Article 9 "peace clause" and return Japan to "traditional" values of social harmony and obedience to the state. 9/

Since Abe personally approved the new era name, we need to consider what these two characters mean to Abe himself, from Abe's own perspective. Putting ourself in Abe's shoes, 令 clearly connotes social order, and 和 connotes social harmony and Japanese national pride. 10/

In fact, Abe said yesterday that the new era name "is meant to reflect the spiritual unity of the Japanese people."

This is clearly a play on the double meaning of 和 as both "harmony" and "Japan." Neither sense was used in the Man'yōshū poem. 11/

Abe then added that he hoped the new era name would become "deeply rooted in the daily lives of the Japanese people." Abe is clearly choosing this name in hopes that it will have some sort of salutary affect on his people and his nation. 12/

A much beloved word among Abe and his fellow conservatives is "chōwa" (調和), or social harmony and consensus, which they like to believe prevailed in Japan before defeat in World War II and the US Occupation introduced decadent western values of individualism and materialism 13/

The resonance with Emperor Hirohito's "Showa" (昭和) era name is also not disapproved of, if not even intentional. While many on the Left look back at Showa as an era of disastrous imperialism, militarism, and war, the Right views the era much more positively. 14/

For the Right, Showa was an era when Japan first demonstrated its military might, and allegedly freed Asia from western imperialism in a sacred war, and then demonstrated its economic might by rising from the ashes of defeat to become a world-beating economic great power. 15/

Showa was also a time when Japanese people were supposedly more united in social harmony and in support of state goals, not fractious, selfish and individualistic like they supposedly are today (this interpretation ignores or elides massive social strife in Showa) 16/

Throughout the Showa Era (1926-1989), Japanese conservatives also united around the slogan "Showa Restoration," which was an effort to purify the Japanese nation by getting rid of democracy and restoring direct imperial rule. 17/

For many Japanese conservatives, even *conservatives* were better/bolder/stronger back in the rose-colored Showa era. 18/

In addition to these resonances with ideas of social harmony and the Showa era, the character 和 is also traditionally held to be the ancient Japanese name for the land of Japan, as opposed to the supposedly imported Chinese name "Nihon/Nippon" (日本, land of the rising sun). 19/

Although taking the characters for a new Imperial era name from an ancient Japanese poem *seems* very traditional, this is actually a rather dramatic *break* from tradition, as all the other era names for thousands of years had been taken from Classical Chinese texts! 20/

None of this is accidental. Essentially, Abe is trying to "make Japan great again" vis-a-vis China, the United States and the rest of the world, by restoring national pride, national purpose, and social harmony, and the new era name intricately reflects these hopes. 21/

Another way of saying all this is that dog whistles are always polysemous. That's what makes them dog whistles. 22/

Also interesting to note that although this is the first time 「令」 is used in an era name, the era name "Reitoku" (令徳) was strongly considered in 1864 before "Genji" (元治) was ultimately chosen. 23/

According to an encyclopedic reference work on historical era names, the name Reitoku was ultimately rejected for having unseemly political overtones because it sounded like "ordered/commanded by the Tokugawa shogunate" (徳川に命令する). 24/


Evidently 19th century Japanese people were able to recognize that the character 令 has more than one meaning. We should probably do the same! 25/

Last, some have suggested that perhaps the expert advisors suggested "Reiwa" to give Abe characters he would like while also carrying the hidden meaning of "maintaining peace" by protecting Article 9, which Abe famously wants to ditch!

These characters contain multitudes!


Ack, I have a typo in the third tweet - of course I meant to say the Man'yōshū poem is more than 1,000 years old, not more than 100!

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