REIWA: A PEACEFUL ERA MARKED BY GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
Preparing to report on the government’s announcement today, April 1, of a name for the new era of Japan’s next emperor, I stuck myself inside my study early this morning. My plan was to finish reading a pile of material on my desk by noon and start penning this column the first thing in the afternoon. But that was not possible, as press helicopters kept buzzing above the ordinarily quiet area comprising the Diet building and the wooded Imperial Palace not far from where I live in central Tokyo. Some commotion naturally should have been expected as the announcement was to be made at 11:30 a.m. on the dot.
Getting restless, I finally decided to turn on the TV, which was delivering news on related developments by the minute as millions of TV watchers across the nation watched eagerly. We all felt the same way, impatient to celebrate the start of the new era which was exactly a month away.
I waited anxiously for the moment when Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary, was expected to declare what the new era name would be. I found Professor Isao Tokoro of the Institute of Moralogy, a leading expert on era names, among the panelists invited for this occasion. His authoritative interpretations always make me feel at ease.
Ten minutes behind schedule, at 11:40 a.m., Suga showed up at the press room, solemnly announcing: “The new era name is ‘Reiwa.’”
Speaking clearly and looking sharp, there was an air of dignity about Suga. He exuded delight as he explained that the name was taken from the foreword of a set of 32 poems admiring plum blossoms in full bloom in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology, compiled around 783.
The Manyoshu is an exquisite choice. When the government stated publicly earlier that Japanese classics could be a source for choosing the new era name along with Chinese classics which were resorted to in the past, many of us must have thought of the Kojiki (The Records of Ancient Matters; 712) or the Nihon-Shoki (The Record of Ancient Matters; 720). But the Manyoshu definitely is the essence of a national literature that all of we Japanese take great pride in.
I hastily pulled out a copy of the paperback edition of the Manyoshu (volume 1) off my bookshelf to supplement the parts of Suga’s explanations I failed to jot down. The book is edited by prominent historian Susumu Nakanishi (Kodansha, Tokyo; August 15, 1978).
I found a section in the book that stated: “On January 13 in the second year of Tenpyo (729-740), poets gathered for a banquet at the residence of Sochi-no-Okina.” It was followed by a description of the banquet in classic Japanese which included the two characters that form the new era name— “rei” and “wa.”
Professor Nakanishi translated the passage as follows:
“One evening in this superb month of early spring:
the air fresh, the wind gentle
the plum trees opening their white blossoms
like beautiful women applying powder to their faces,
while the sweet perfume of the orchids
wafts enticingly all about us.”
Poems by All People
These passages in the preface to the Manyoshu were written by the legendary poet Ohtomo no Tabito (665-731), who further depicts the banquet as follows:
“Here the poets sit closely together helping one another to more sake: the sky is their canopy and the earth their seats. No words are necessary as those present already are close to each other, freely opening their hearts in the embrace of nature.”
In this atmosphere of ultimate peace and compassion, the 32 poets present are thought to have split into four groups, sat in a circle, and taken turns in chanting their poems.
Five minutes after noon, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke to the press to explain the background behind selecting “Reiwa” as the name for the coming era of Emperor Naruhito, whose father will abdicate April 30. Suga should have reason to feel deeply emotional after having successfully managed to prepare for the first abdication in more than 200 years and announced the name for the new era. “Reiwa” reflects Abe’s pride as head of state that Japanese men and women of all social status, regardless of their class or profession, can participate in the rich culture of Japan going forward.
After all, this oldest Japanese anthology compiled a good 1,200 years ago includes some 4,500 poems composed by emperors, noblemen, noblewomen, farmers, and soldiers (including the sakimori dispatched to defend the shores of Kyushu against the Chinese).
Abe emphasized: “I hope that ‘Reiwa’ will help pass Japan’s long history, noble culture, and beautiful four-season nature down to future generations.”
The traditional Japanese national character of loving nature and caring for people regardless of their social status is reflected in the fact that the name and title of each of the 32 poets is stipulated along with his or her work. Such treatment was not restricted to people of good social standing. The sakimori soldiers garrisoned at strategic spots in Kyushu were given the same treatment after the 663 Battle of Baekgang, in which Japan suffered a devastating defeat against the combined forces of Tang and Silla as it attempted to save the kingdom of Baekche. Some 90 years later, about 100 poems composed by the sakimori soldiers were included in the Manyoshu along with their names and the names of their spouses.
This could never have happened even in the Sui and Tang dynasties of China, which then was a superpower. There, soldiers and farmers were heartlessly disposed of. But in Japan, it was a different story, as farmers and soldiers were viewed as precious imperial subjects. They freely composed poems, which were incorporated into the anthology and have been handed down some 1,200 years to today.
According to Nakanishi, roughly half of the poems in the Manyoshu are labeled as “composer unknown.” He explained:
“People who left ‘composer-unknown’ poems are the ones who make up the bulk of the Manyoshu…This anthology recognized the works of these many anonymous people as full-fledged poems, treating their compositions exactly like those of leading poets.”
In short, the Manyoshu is proof that Japanese leaders have historically cared for individual citizens while ruling the country.
Poems can be said to express individual hearts and sensitivities, and myths the hearts and sensitivities of ethnic groups. Historian Mutsuko Mizoguchi, who authored Birth of Amaterasu (Iwanami Shinsho; 2009) points out there is a world of difference in the nature of myths between Japan and the rest of the world.
The Way of Yamato
According to the author, Japanese myths and legends contain many stories about common people, while the myths and legends of Korea, for example, depict the “origins of royal power and rulers.” Such Korean myths would be represented by such works as Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk Yua (Anecdotal History of the Three Kingdoms). In other words, more emphasis was placed in ancient Korea on the power and authority of rulers than the happiness and enjoyment of the common people.
It is significant that the new era name has this time been drawn from the Manyoshu, a work of Japanese literature marked by passion and optimism. It is the first time in the long history of Japan that an era name comes from a Japanese source, rather than Chinese, and it is expected to trigger fresh interest in Japan’s history on the part of the people.
When ancient Japan had yet to develop its own writing system, our ancestors studied literature under the strong influence of Chinese civilization. While paying respect to China, however, in 607 Prince Shotoku (574-622) declared to China, which viewed Japan as its vassal state, that Japan and China were on an equal footing.
Shotoku’s pride and mettle were succeeded by Empress Seimei (594-661), who resolved to dispatch troops to the Korean Peninsula to defend Baekche against the combined forces of Tang and Silla. Although Japan suffered a humiliating defeat at the time, it did not beg Tang for a peace settlement. Empress Seimei resolutely faced up to Tang, although her two sons—Emperors Tenji (626-672) and Tenmu (?-686)—eventually decided to pull all Japanese troops out of the peninsula.
Emperor Tenji fortified military defenses against the Chinese empire while his brother Tenmu established the foundation of the spiritual pillar which has contributed to what we Japanese are today. That is the story of the Kojiki, which amply reflects popular ancient creation myths and heroic legendary tales.
Such a backdrop led to the magnificently benevolent and virtuous rule of Emperor Shomu (701-756) known, among other things, for the building of a giant Buddha statue at the Todai-ji temple in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara in 752.
The compilation of the Manyoshu was started after the death of Prince Shotoku and is believed to have been completed following the death of Emperor Shomu. The work progressed over a century and ended in 759, spanning the eras of more than a dozen successive emperors who resolutely determined that the Japanese as a race must pursue the Yamato, not Chinese, way.
The new era name casts our minds back to these remarkable episodes of our nation’s history. I sincerely hope that the new era will closely unite the heart of Emperor Naruhito of Reiwa with those of our people and that the paths we tread together will be brightly illuminated toward a peaceful future marked by a spirit of generosity. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 847 in the April 11, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)