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Saying goodbye to the Heisei era – what happened and why it’s significant

Today marks the final day of the Heisei era in Japan. It’s a rainy day here in Tokyo, which some might say is a shame, but in a way it’s the perfect ending – a nice excuse to slow down, stay indoors and reflect on the occasion.

Era names assigned to periods of time have been used uninterrupted in Japan for more than 1,300 years, and have been part of Japanese history for even longer. In the past, they could be changed multiple times within a single Emperor’s reign, however, since 1868, the beginning of ‘Modern Japan’, a system of “one reign, one era name” was adopted. This means that an era only begins on the day the Emperor ascends the throne and ends the day of the Emperor’s death.

Why is the changing of an era special?

Well, apart from the fact it means that a new Emperor is ascending the throne, it has to be simply that it doesn’t happen very often. We are currently in Heisei 31, meaning the 31st year of the Heisei era, or 31 years since the current Emperor, Emperor Akihito, ascended the throne. His father before him, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, reigned for 64 years, ending the Showa era in Showa 64.

Think of the sense of change we feel simply when the New Year comes around. How we reflect on the year that was and our hopes and aspirations for the coming year. Now think of that feeling multiplied by a few decades, and you’ll start to get a sense of the nostalgia, as well as excitement for the future, that is currently being felt in Japan. Eras in Japan define entire generations and here we are, quite literally, at the end of an era.

What makes this changing of the era so unique?

This changing of the era is a particularly special one because it’s not conforming to Article 4 of current Imperial Household Law that states the throne may only be succeeded upon the Emperor’s passing. Emperor Akihito himself requested to be allowed to step down, citing his declining health over recent years and worry over being able to continue with his duties. The Japanese Diet (parliament/congress) enacted a special one-off law in June 2017, allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate. It’s the first time in 200 years that an Emperor is abdicating the throne ahead of time. This means a couple of important factors.

One is that the abdication could be planned and the new era name could be announced in advance. Ordinarily, the new era name would not be decided upon and made public until the first day of the new era (i.e. the day after the Emperor’s passing) and there would be no public preparations for a handover. This is because we do not know the timing until it happens and, more importantly, it would be very shitsurei (impolite) to anticipate the passing of the Emperor.

This time the changing of the Emperor can be met with joyous anticipation. Under usual circumstances, a new era would mean the mourning of the Emperor, perhaps quite suddenly or unexpectedly, and is always a solemn occasion. While Emperor Akihito has had his fair share of health scares over the years and is now in his mid-80s, his otherwise good health and smiley public appearances as he prepares for a well-earned retirement, mean that this is a celebratory occasion.

Looking back on Heisei – what defined the Heisei era?

The Heisei era, which began on 8 January 1989 and ends today, 30 April 2019, has overseen a period of great technological advancement. Computers have gone from clunky desktops only accessible at work, to sleek laptops that no business person would be without. We’ve witnessed the advent and widespread popularization of the internet, and now carry smartphones and digital devices wherever we go.

Heisei has also brought with it some unprecedented lows for Japan. The economic “bubble” burst in the early 1990s, beginning a difficult period of economic stagnation known as “The Lost Decade”. On top of that, the Heisei era has been plagued by natural disasters, most notably the 1995 Kobe Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.

However, on the flipside, Heisei was the first modern era without war. Emperor Akihito was the first Emperor to ascend the throne after the new pacifist Constitution came into effect on 3 May 1947, following World War II. Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes and states that the nation can only engage in acts of self-defense. Heisei is therefore viewed as a period of great peace for Japan.

Commemorating the Heisei era

The fact that the Emperor’s abdication has been a planned event for the past 2-3 years, this final year, and in particular the past months, have given the opportunity for the public to openly reminisce about the end of the era and it’s been met with much nostalgia.

This past New Year was not just the passing of another year, it was the last New Year of the Heisei era. The recent cherry blossom season was not just another spring, but the final hanami (cherry blossom viewing picnics) of Heisei. On social media, hashtags paying tribute to the outgoing era abound such as #平成最後 (Heisei saigo, the last of Heisei) and #平成ありがとう (Heisei arigato, thank you Heisei).

In recent months, we have seen a flurry of limited edition products make their way onto Japanese shop shelves. A popular item has been the limited-edition Heisei-inspired potato chips by Japanese company Koikeya. They have taken their most popular flavor, seaweed, and created new packaging with the era’s biggest newspaper headlines and the slogan, “Thank you Heisei.”

Then there’s the collaboration between Glico’s popular Japanese snack Pocky and Kirin’s Afternoon Milk Tea, the Pocky chocolate and coffee flavored, and the Kirin a cheese milk tea. Placing the limited-edition packaging of both items side-by-side tells the story of classmates over the years, giving us the chance to reminisce over our own high school days. Why these two flavors? Well, the chocolate, coffee and cheese all meld together to create a tiramisu flavor, said to be the most popular dessert flavor during Heisei.

Gratitude for the Emperor and Empress

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are much-loved by the public. It all started when they met on a tennis court in Karuizawa and subsequently fell in love and got married. Empress Michiko, then Crown Princess, was the first commoner to marry into the Imperial Family. Their ‘love marriage’ captured the hearts of romantics across the country and it suddenly made the Imperial Family seem less removed from the people.

The Crown Princess’ stature was similar to that of the late Princess Diana’s. She was the sporty and smart girl-next-door who had captured the heart of a prince. Her outfits were dissected in magazines so that adoring fans wanting to be like her could follow her fashion trends. When the couple started a family, they made the decision to bring up their children themselves in their own household, the first members of the Imperial Family to do so. Photos show them pushing their children in prams around the Imperial Palace grounds and doing the regular things parents do. This furthered their positive public image as “ordinary people” who weren’t above or disconnected from the lives of the average Japanese citizen.

In fact, the couple have always made a point of spending time with everyday people, understanding their challenges and providing support. They are passionate about assisting society’s most vulnerable and use their celebrity for good. When the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters occurred in 2011, more than any politician, the public wanted to hear from the Emperor. A man whose role was not steeped in political agenda or rhetoric, and whose caring disposition was exactly the kind of grandfatherly guidance the country so desperately needed in those moments.

While Emperor Akihito ascended the throne through his royal lineage, the love and equal standing he shares with his wife is noticeable and touching. When he speaks, he expresses wishes from both of them. They have been a unit since their courtship, they stood together again today in his last address during his abdication ceremony, and they’ll continue on into their much-deserved retirement days.

The start of a new era

As of midnight, the new ‘Reiwa’ era will begin. The first of accession proceedings for Crown Prince Naruhito, Akihito and Michiko’s first-born son, will begin tomorrow, 1 May 2019.

Being born in the current era is a sign of youth in Japan. Many younger people have expressed that they now “feel old,” knowing that they’ll soon be of the generation born in the previous era, similar to how we might feel about being born in a certain decade, or ‘last century’ as my nieces and nephew often remind me.

As the new era brings with it a new chapter in Japanese history, many people are waiting for the new era to begin to mark important new chapters in their own lives. Some venues are offering midnight wedding services so that couples can say ‘I do’ at the same moment as the ushering in of the new era, city halls are expecting an influx of couples filing their marriage paperwork tomorrow, and others are excited to welcome children into the world during the year Reiwa 1. Last year saw the lowest number of births on record in Japan. And while the declining birth rate is nothing new, the very bleak numbers may well be an indication of couples’ desires to time their new arrivals for the new era.

So in the final hours of the current era, we say thank you, Heisei, and thank you Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

What’s your favorite memory of the Heisei era? What are you looking forward to with the start of the new Reiwa era? 

You might also be interested in: how to read a Japanese calendar – especially important to understand for your Japan trip as we change eras!

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