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Mikhail Skovoronskikh

MA, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

The world knows all but a limited number of nations that boast their own chronicle-keeping traditions. Undoubtedly, Japan is a prominent member of this “club”, making regular use of the western calendar and maintaining a chronicle-making tradition which is based on the so-called ruler slogans — short well-wishing “slogans” declared at the ascension of a new emperor. For the Japanese, a change of emperor and, accordingly, a change of his slogan, are considered a milestone, a watershed, which provides a good reason for taking a closer look at the past and a progressive look into the future. In the run-up to the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito, scheduled for May 1, 2019, the Japanese government has selected and announced the slogan of the future monarch — “Reiwa”, which can be translated as “blissful harmony”. However, the new imperial slogan has proved somewhat extraordinary and even ambiguous.

The slogan “reiva” visibly stands out against the previous ones. What makes it special is that for the first time in the entire history of Japan, the idea for it was borrowed from classical Japanese literature — the ancient poetic anthology “Man’yoshu”. Earlier the ideas for a slogan were invariably taken from Chinese classics, full of profound philosophical, political and historical insights. Now, the government has chosen to turn to the Japanese “roots”.

A few hours after the publication of the new slogan Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a statement full of “plum” allusions in which he dwelled on the “fragrance” of national culture and the desire to transform Japan into a country where every citizen could “bloom” like a plum tree after a harsh winter. In a way, the slogans of the former emperors, with their philosophical and historical connotations, gave way to a literary trope. 18th century thinker and linguist, Motoori Norinaga, widely deemed the forerunner of Japanese nationalism, spoke about a clash between the rational Chinese mind and the sentimental, irrational Japanese soul, calling for eradicating Chinese borrowings. The departure from Chinese classics while choosing a ruler slogan also resulted in rejection of Confucian rationalism in favor of Japanese sentimentality.

The world knows all but a limited number of nations that boast their own chronicle-keeping traditions. Undoubtedly, Japan is a prominent member of this “club”, making regular use of the western calendar and maintaining a chronicle-making tradition which is based on the so-called ruler slogans — short well-wishing “slogans” declared at the ascension of a new emperor. For the Japanese, a change of emperor and, accordingly, a change of his slogan, are considered a milestone, a watershed, which provides a good reason for taking a closer look at the past and a progressive look into the future. In the run-up to the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito, scheduled for May 1, 2019, the Japanese government has selected and announced the slogan of the future monarch — “Reiwa”, which can be translated as “blissful harmony”. However, the new imperial slogan has proved somewhat extraordinary and even ambiguous.

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The slogan-based chronicle-keeping system originated in ancient China and until the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 remained part and parcel of the traditional Chinese calendar. Japan adopted this system during its formation as a centralized state and announced its first slogan — “Taika” or a “great transfiguration” — in the year 645. The Chinese empire’s vassal states (for example, Korea) chose to employ the Chinese slogans recognizing the power of the “center”, whereas the Japanese rulers invariably declared their own ones, which came as a claim to equal status with the Chinese “Son of Heaven.” The tradition lived on after Japan suffered defeat in the Second World War: and ruler slogans are used in official documents to this day. For example, the year 2019 is the 31st Heisei year and will soon be the first year of the “Reiwa”.

On April 1, 2019, the Japanese government published the slogan of the future emperor — currently Crown Prince Naruhito. A panel of experts that participated in the slogan selection process, having considered a number of options, eventually made a choice in favor of “blissful harmony”. In the remote past, ruler slogans could be changed following favorable or unfavorable events and the emperor could pursue several slogans. The “one emperor — one slogan” rule, which was introduced during the Meiji era (1868–1912), is still in force. However, the slogan “reiva” visibly stands out against the previous ones. What makes it special is that for the first time in the entire history of Japan, the idea for it was borrowed from classical Japanese literature — the ancient poetic anthology “Man’yoshu”. Earlier the ideas for a slogan were invariably taken from Chinese classics, full of profound philosophical, political and historical insights. Now, the government has chosen to turn to the Japanese “roots”.

The components of the new slogan come from the preface to a series of traditional Japanese poems — waka — about plum flowers (dat. 730), completely devoid of philosophical or political implications. The preface itself is written in literary Chinese, which played about the same role in Japan as Latin did in medieval Europe. The text of the preface reads as follows:

In the early spring of a blissful (rei) month the air was fresh, and the wind — gentle (wa) ...

Experts chose this passage as the source for a new slogan despite the fact that the text, even though exquisite, is secondary, an imitation (and in some places, almost word-for-word copy) of works by Chinese writers Wang Xizhi and Zhang Hen. Nevertheless, the choice was made in favor of the anthology “Man'yoshu” as the most ancient and prestigious collection of Japanese (Japanese, not Chinese) poetry.

A few hours after the publication of the new slogan Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a statement full of “plum” allusions in which he dwelled on the “fragrance” of national culture and the desire to transform Japan into a country where every citizen could “bloom” like a plum tree after a harsh winter. In a way, the slogans of the former emperors, with their philosophical and historical connotations, gave way to a literary trope. 18th century thinker and linguist, Motoori Norinaga, widely deemed the forerunner of Japanese nationalism, spoke about a clash between the rational Chinese mind and the sentimental, irrational Japanese soul, calling for eradicating Chinese borrowings. The departure from Chinese classics while choosing a ruler slogan also resulted in rejection of Confucian rationalism in favor of Japanese sentimentality.

Prime Minister Abe’s choice of Man'yoshu can be viewed in a wider context of his political views. It is no secret that the Prime Minister and his entourage are closely connected with representatives of deeply conservative and nationalist circles whose statements and campaigns have repeatedly come under criticism from Japan’s neighbors in the region. However, for ordinary Japanese, a change of slogan marks upcoming changes and inspires hope for a better future. For many, May 1, 2019, will become the first day of the new era, the era of new beginnings and opportunities, the era of the “reiwa”.


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