On May 1, Japan enters a new era – or gengō. As Emperor Akihito prepares to step down, his son Naruhito will take the Chrysanthemum Throne as the 126th Emperor of Japan. And on that day, the country will depart the Heisei period and open the door on a new Imperial period, Reiwa.
令和. Two simple syllables, loaded with meaning. One translation suggests ‘joyful harmony’ and the characters are drawn from an 8th century poem the Man'yōshū and notably it’s the first time that an Imperial era has drawn its name from Japanese not Chinese poetry. The process of coming to this title has been painstaking, with nine high ranking figures from across Japanese society coming together to draw up a shortlist. And even then, they haven’t entirely managed to avoid controversy – one meaning associated with the ‘rei’ character is order or command, which was picked up by international commentators and leading the country’s foreign ministry to clarify that this is certainly not the case
The challenges facing the panel of experts as they strove to define – and dare we say, brand – the coming era will be familiar to writers and brand strategists across the industry. What’s in a name? Well, everything.
And the significance of the new gengō on the ad industry cannot be underestimated. On my recent trip to Japan, this coming era was something that dominated conversation. Key business decisions were being timed to coincide with the ascension, and the trepidatious wait for the revelation of the era’s new name seemed to encapsulate a broader feeling that the winds of disruption are about to blow through what is a fairly traditional and slow-to-change market.
Plus there’s the day-to-day impact with brands arranging PR stunts to coincide with the name reveal. Within hours of the revelation of the Reiwa name on Monday, businesses were selling t-shirts
and making special Reiwa candy
. A national holiday is due to kick in from April 27 to May 6 – an unheard-of ten days for a country renowned for its long working hours – and so it’s certainly going to mean big business for leisure and tourism businesses.
To get an idea of what Reiwa really means for Japan, I reached out to Keiko Oda, communications director at ADK and Yoshi Matsuura, executive planning director at McCann Tokyo.
Reiwa: “Branding” The New Era
Yoshi Matsuura, executive planning director at McCann Tokyo
On April 1st the Japanese government announced the name of the new Imperial Era, which will begin on May 1st with the Abdication of the current Emperor.
The new name is of great symbolic importance, as people reflect on the achievements of the past era and their hopes for the new one, and the announcement drew crowds to TV sets in every workplace and school in Japan. But it’s choice is also a very opaque process. Surprisingly, in this era of bottom-up thinking and freedom of information, the name is chosen by the government, and even the full discussions behind it will not be disclosed for the next 30 years.
So did the government get it right, and will it be meaningful for the people of the world’s 3rd largest economy?
For many, the new title “Reiwa” was a surprise. The combination of words is totally unexpected, even difficult to understand. The first character Rei, which is being used for the first time since 645, usually means ‘giving orders’, and the second character Wa (meaning peace and harmony) harks back to when it was used previously in the Showa period from 1926 to 1989. And people were not slow to point out that for the first time in history, the era name was chosen based on Japanese literature, instead of Chinese ones.
In fact, the character Rei has a very positive meaning that most Japanese including myself didn’t know. (According to a prominent linguist, it actually has the meaning of beautiful, pure and noble.) As the government explained its thinking, Reiwa was chosen in the hope that each person in Japan can achieve success with hopes for the future like plum flowers that bloom brilliantly after winter. After learning about its meaning, majority of the Japanese citizens say they favor this new title, according to a recent poll.
Based on the research for our upcoming Truth about Japan study, this is exactly what people want. The current Heisei era (1989-2019) will be remembered as a time of challenges for Japan, characterized by economic stagnation, natural disasters and the rising divide of the nation.
So the new name establishes the aspiration for a rebirth. It’s a strategic choice and an act of strong ‘brand leadership’ by the Japanese government to strengthen the unity and identity of Japan. As such, it sets the stage for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a coming together of the nation, and brands both Japanese and Western alike should know that this is the tone that both government and people desire.
Reiwa is Announced. So We Look back on Heisei.
Keiko Oda, communications director at ADK
Although limited to the Palace grounds, until last year when he turned 85, Emperor Akihito drove a 1991 Honda Integra. Honda was not allowed to advertise this, but they obviously kept inventory of parts for this model. The Emperor is a role model of frugality.
He succeeded a father, who was considered deity before WWII, and became the first to assume the throne as a symbolic monarch. And he did a splendid job in positioning himself as a considerate, modest and caring symbol of unity for the Japanese.
For many of us, Heisei was the age of the bubble economy and its disappearance, various natural (and human-error) disasters, and a global baseball Samurai called Ichiro.
The Showa era (1926 – 1989) can be characterized by turbulence, while Heisei, which means ‘the achievement of peace’, has very much lived up to its name. And Emperor Akihito has expressed in a recent press conference, that he is greatly relieved that his has been a peaceful era. But I’m sure many Japanese agree, that he and Empress Michiko are by far the major contributors to the brand value of Heisei.
The next Imperial Era, Reiwa, means beautiful harmony. It has a unique ring to it, and seems very appropriate as the name for a new era. What we may call the brand statement announced by Prime Minister Abe, mentions the hopes that culture will be nurtured by people bringing their hearts together in harmony.
The Japanese have never been very good at intentional branding, probably because we take on nature as it comes. (This may be why award-winning campaigns for Japanese brands very often come from the overseas marketing efforts.)
So, although the prominent scholars have worked hard to come up with names for the next era, no one is really expecting any concrete activation plans for this branding. It is something that we will be reflecting back on many decades from now, when the era after Reiwa approaches.
In the meantime, the next Emperor Naruhito may already be starting to work on the brief, Reiwa, that has been bestowed on him.