In this auspicious month of early spring, the weather is fine and the wind gentle. The plum blossoms open like powder before a mirror while the orchids give off the sweet scent of a sachet.
On January 7, 1989 Emperor Showa (Emperor Hirohito) passed away, and on January 8, as the entire nation grieved, the Heisei period began.
On August 8, 2016 Emperor Akihito expressed his intention to abdicate in a video message saying, “I am already 80 years old, and fortunately I am now in good health. However, when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now.” This announcement was followed by a great many discussions and procedures, with the abdication of Emperor Akihito taking place on April 30, 2019 pursuant to the Special Measures Law on the Imperial Household Law. Thus, the Heisei period spanning thirty years and 113 days came to an end.
On the Occasion of the Ceremony of His Abdication at the Seiden (State Hall) of the Imperial Palace, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo commented on the way that Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress had been close to the people, bringing them hope, courage and support. Prime Minister Abe expressed his gratitude on behalf of the people, saying, “Today, reflecting on the years that preceded this day of abdication, I would like to express once more my deep reverence and gratitude for sharing the joys and sorrows of the people at all times.”
Emperor Akihito responded as follows:
Today, I am concluding my duties as the Emperor.
I would like to offer my deep gratitude to the words just spoken by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on behalf of the people of Japan.
Since ascending the throne thirty years ago, I have performed my duties as the Emperor with a deep sense of trust in and respect for the people, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so. I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State.
I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one, and I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.
Source: Imperial Household Agency, http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/page/okotoba/detailEn/46)
From that night to the following day, messages of thanks to the old era and welcome to the new, such as “Thank you, Heisei” and “Happy Reiwa,” flooded the Internet. All over the country the mood was one of thanks and celebration, with people going to the Imperial Palace despite the rain, taking part in countdown events to celebrate the new era, visiting places associated with Heisei and Reiwa, registering their marriages on the first day of Reiwa, and climbing mountains to see the first sunrise of the new era.
The change of date on May 1, 2019 amid this excitement and bustle brought with it a change in era name from Heisei to Reiwa, when Crown Prince Naruhito ascended the Throne as the 126th Emperor, and the Emperor Akihito became the Emperor Emeritus.
On the morning of that day, the Sokui-go-Choken-no-gi (First Audience after the Accession to the Throne) at the Seiden (State Hall) took place, and Emperor Naruhito delivered the following address:
I have hereby succeeded to the Throne pursuant to the Constitution of Japan and the Special Measures Law on the Imperial House Law.
When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.
Looking back, His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus, since acceding to the Throne, performed each of his duties in earnest for more than thirty years, while praying for world peace and the happiness of the people, and at all times sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people. He showed profound compassion through his own bearing. I would like to express my heartfelt respect and appreciation of the comportment shown by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan.
In acceding to the Throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement. I also swear that I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them. I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.
Source: Imperial Household Agency, http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/page/okotoba/detailEn/47#156)
In response to the Emperor’s words, Prime Minister Abe, representing the people, said, “We look up to the Emperor as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, in our firm determination to work for the creation of a bright future for Japan as a peaceful country full of hope and pride amid the turbulent global environment, to foster a society where culture can be nurtured and where its people live together in beautiful harmony.”
Emperor Naruhito’s words “at all times sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people” refer to the way that the Emperor Emeritus smiles and interacts warmly with the public when carrying out official visits, including to sites where people are recuperating from disaster. Whenever a disaster occurred, the Emperor Emeritus would visit the affected area, kneel on the ground and take the victims’ hands, listening to their stories and offering words of encouragement. Moreover, the Emperor Emeritus continued to visit war memorials both in Japan and overseas. Emperor Naruhito too has placed great value on contact with the public during his time as Crown Prince. During this time, the public has seen him on news reports being close to the people. The kindness and magnanimity of Emperor Naruhito has shrunk the distance between the people and the Imperial Family to a strong bond that transcends words such as “respect” and “trust.”
Poetry and the Joining of Hearts and Minds
There is a tanka (31- syllable poem) that symbolizes the spirit of the Emperor Emeritus of getting close to the people. The poem was written by the Emperor Emeritus on the theme of “light.”
These sunflowers grown
From seeds presented to us
How tall they now are
Their leaves spreading out widely
In the early summer light.
The background of this poem is explained as below.
Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress visited Hyogo Prefecture in 2005 to attend the Memorial Ceremony to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. On that occasion Their Majesties conversed with a girl representing the families of the deceased, who presented Them with some sunflower seeds called “Haruka’s Sunflowers.” That year Their Majesties planted those seeds in the garden of the Imperial Residence, and ever since then, They have continued to grow those sunflowers every year, by planting the seeds taken after the flowering season. In this poem His Majesty describes how those sunflowers are thriving.
“Haruka’s Sunflowers” described in the background are sunflowers which bloomed the summer following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake at the site of the home of Haruka Kato, a sixth grade girl who lost her life in the earthquake. The local people collected the seeds and distributed them widely as a symbol of remembrance and reconstruction.
This tanka poem was presented on January 1, 2019 at “Utakai Hajime” or the “New Year’s Poetry Reading” (see box), one of the important events of the Imperial Household. Utakai Hajime is a poetry reading held each January, where tanka submitted by the general public composed on a theme announced in advance are chosen to be recited together with tanka composed by members of the Imperial Household, including His Imperial Majesty. It is a traditional event where the Imperial Household interacts with the general public through tanka. Every year, more than 20,000 tanka are received from the general public.
The Imperial Household Agency explains the Utakai Hajime as follows:
“The Ceremony of the Utakai Hajime at the Imperial Palace boasts a long history and represents a ceremonial culture that has become more sophisticated with the reforms of the Meiji and post-war eras, to become a cultural event with national participation in a way that is unique in the world. Tanka poetry is said to be at the heart of all traditional culture in Japan. These tanka poems are heard and read not only in Japan, but also throughout the world, and the ceremony demonstrates their power to bind the people together with the Imperial Family through this annual ceremony at the Imperial Palace, which is something to be truly praised and lauded. The Ceremony of the Utakai Hajime is attended by Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress, and poems recited include those chosen from submissions by the general public, poems of the selectors themselves, and poems by professional poets. Finally, the poems of the Imperial Family, Her Majesty the Empress and His Majesty the Emperor are recited.”
Records show that the Utakai Hajime was held at the Imperial Court during the mid-Kamakura period, on January 15, 1267, and has been held in January almost every year since the Edo period (1603–1867). The foreword to Baika no utage (Nos. 815–846) in Volume 5 of the Man’yoshu (total 20 volumes, 4,536 poems), the oldest waka poetry collection in Japan compiled in the second half of the eighth century, states that on January 13 in the second year of the Tenpyo era (730), Otomo no Tabito (665–731), chief of the Dazaifu government that ruled Kyushu who is said to have loved plum blossoms, hosted a banquet where thirty-two people each recited one waka poem. This plum blossom feast was the source of the new era name “Reiwa” following Heisei.
This was explained by Suga Yoshihide, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, when he announced the new era on April 1, 2019:
“This [Reiwa] was taken from wording appearing in the Man’yoshu: ‘In this auspicious month of early spring, the weather is fine and the wind gentle. The plum blossoms open like powder before a mirror while the orchids give off the sweet scent of a sachet.’ Moreover, this name ‘Reiwa’ includes the meaning of culture coming into being and flourishing when people bring their hearts and minds together in a beautiful manner.”
Incidentally, the thirty-two poems that follow this foreword include one “by the host,” that is to say Otomo no Tabito (No. 822).
In my garden fall the plum-blossoms
Are they indeed snow-flakes
Whirling from the sky?
— By the host
Source: The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems ― With the Texts in Romaji, with a New Foreword by Donald Keene, Columbia University Press New York)
The Man’yoshu is a collection of poems composed by poets of various social standing, from Emperors, Imperial Family members, and nobility, to junior government officials, soldiers, street performers, and peasants, and includes songs of the East (azuma-uta).
The first poem in the Man’yoshu is a song in which the Emperor Yuryaku proposes marriage to a maiden picking vegetables in a field. The Japanese girl’s name, Natsumi (菜摘), written with the characters for “vegetables” and “pick,” embodies the wish that a handsome man will fall in love at first sight with the bearer of the name, like in Emperor Yuryaku’s poem
Your basket, with your pretty basket,
Your trowel, with your little trowel,
Maiden, picking herbs on this hill-side,
I would ask you: Where is your home?
Will you not tell me your name?
Over the spacious Land of Yamato
It is I who reign so wide and far,
It is I who rule so wide and far.
I myself, as your lord, will tell you
Of my home, and my name.
— By the Emperor Yuryaku
Source: The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems
From that time onward, tanka became a vehicle through which the Imperial Court ruled the country. Maruya Saiichi comments that from the mid-tenth century to the mid-fifteenth century, twenty-one anthologies of poetry were collected by command of retired and reigning emperors. (See pp. 10–14.)
Hopes for Tomorrow
The day the Chief Cabinet Secretary announced the new imperial era name, Prime Minister Abe said the following about Reiwa:
“History from time immemorial, highly respectable culture, and natural beauty unique to each of our four seasons. We will pass down these national characteristics of Japan firmly to the next era. Just as the plum blossoms announce the arrival of spring after the harsh cold of winter and bloom splendidly in all their glory, all Japanese will be able to make their own blossoms come into full bloom, together with their hopes for tomorrow. We decided on ‘Reiwa’ with the hope that Japan will be just such a nation. On peaceful days when we can foster culture and appreciate natural beauty, full of heartfelt gratitude, we will together with the Japanese people carve out a new era that is brimming with hope. In deciding on the new era name, we renewed our determination to do this.”
Prime Minister Abe went on to say the following about era names:
“Era names have, together with the long-standing tradition of the Imperial Household and a profound wish for the peace and security of the nation and the well-being of the people, woven together the history of our nation that spans almost 1,400 years. Era names are also integrated into the hearts and minds of the Japanese and support the Japanese people’s inner sense of unity.”
As Japan expresses gratitude to Heisei, pays respects to the Emperor Emeritus, welcomes the enthronement of the new Emperor and the change of era name, the country has a vision of a bright future. This mood may turn out to be a major asset for a country whose national character is somewhat pessimistic.
SANO Kentaro is a freelance writer.