Japan gov't says era name translates as 'beautiful harmony'

In this Monday, April 1, 2019, photo, Kane Tanaka, who is honored as the world's oldest living person by Guinness World Records at 116, poses with new era name "Reiwa," made of chocolate at a nursing home in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan. Tanaka was born in Meiji era, and will soon experience the fifth era, starting on May 1. (Ryosuke Uematsu/Kyodo News via AP)
FILE - In this April 1, 2019, file photo, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the name of new era "Reiwa" at the prime minister's office in Tokyo. Japan’s government says the translation of the new era name is “beautiful harmony,” setting off confusion while offices rush to make changes before Crown Prince Naruhito takes the throne. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 2, 2018, file photo, Japan's Emperor Akihito, right, with Crown Prince Naruhito waves to well-wishers from the bullet-proofed balcony during his New Year's public appearance with his family members at Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Japan’s government says the translation of the new era name is “beautiful harmony,” setting off confusion while offices rush to make changes before Crown Prince Naruhito takes the throne. The era of “Reiwa” begins May 1, 2019, a day after 85-year-old Emperor Akihito abdicates in favor of his elder son. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
FILE - In this April 1, 2019, file photo, people crowd to get a copy of newspaper extra edition reporting the name of new era in Tokyo. The cultural importance of Japan's imperial family and the secretive naming process created a frenzy of attention for the announcement of the new era name Monday. (Kyodo News via AP, File)
In this Monday, April 1, 2019, photo, Kane Tanaka, who is honored as the world's oldest living person by Guinness World Records at 116, poses with chocolates with era names at a nursing home in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan. Tanaka was born in Meiji era, and will soon experience the fifth era, starting on May 1. The words, from left, read "Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei and Reiwa." (Ryosuke Uematsu/Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO — Japan's government said Tuesday that the official translation of the era name for the new emperor will be "Beautiful Harmony," setting off confusion while offices rush to make changes before Crown Prince Naruhito takes the throne.

The era of "Reiwa" begins May 1, a day after 85-year-old Emperor Akihito abdicates and hands over the chrysanthemum throne to his elder son.

The cultural importance of the imperial family and the secretive naming process created a frenzy of attention for the announcement of the era name on Monday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the name, composed of two Chinese characters, was taken for the first time from an ancient Japanese book instead of from Chinese classics. He said it comes from a section about plum blossoms in Manyoshu, a poetry anthology from the 7th-8th centuries, and suggests that "culture is born and nurtured as the people's hearts are beautifully drawn together."

Abe did not say which of a range of meanings for each of the two Chinese characters applied to the era name.

Experts and media had a variety of interpretations of the meaning, and initial reports generally settled on "pursuing harmony." The first character can also mean order, rule, good or auspicious. The second can mean peace, reconciliation or soft.

A Foreign Ministry official gave the official translation Tuesday.

"'Reiwa' is best interpreted as 'beautiful harmony,'" said Masaru Sato, the deputy consul-general and director of the Japan Information Center in New York. "'Reiwa' refers to the beauty of plum blossoms after a tough winter, and is taken to mean the beauty of people when they bring their hearts together to cultivate a culture."

However, some experts said the first Chinese character, "Rei," today is most widely thought to mean "order," ''command" and "dictate," with an authoritarian tone.

Historians and experts on the monarchy noted that an 1864 era name proposal of "Reitoku" using the same first character was rejected by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which said it sounded like the emperor was commanding Tokugawa.

"The name sounds as if we are ordered to achieve peace, rather than doing so proactively," Kazuto Hongo, a University of Tokyo historian, said on TV Asahi.

Yoshinori Kobayashi, a conservative cartoonist who has written books on Japanese emperors, said the character "Rei" portrays "the people kneeling down under the crown. It's meaning, after all, is a command of a monarch or a ruler. ... It is inevitable that 'Reiwa' gives a somewhat cold impression."

As discussions of the era name dominated Japanese newspapers and television talk shows, stores began selling Reiwa goods.

A bakery in Tokyo sold cupcakes decorated with Reiwa toppings, and sweet bean cakes carrying Reiwa logos quickly sold out at a souvenir shop inside Japan's parliament building. Some bookstores set up Manyoshu sections, and many editions of the anthology were out of stock on Amazon. Department stores were planning to sell gold coins emblazoned with Reiwa.

The announcement gives the government, businesses and people only a month to adjust to a change that affects many parts of Japanese society, though the emperor has no political power under Japan's postwar constitution. Era names are still widely used in government and business documents and on calendars. Many people use them to identify generations and historical periods.

Discussing an era change in advance was not considered a taboo this time because Akihito is abdicating, a highly unusual step.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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