Gengo, Japanese imperial era names 元号

New era, new start!

Along with the Gregorian calendar mostly used around the world, there is another system used in Japan to count the years based on the reign of the emperor. Coming from China and adopted by Japan in 645, this calendar is used in everyday life by the population as well as the Japanese administration and government.

The system evolved a little when Emperor Mutsuhito came to power in Keoi period year 3, which began the first year of the Meiji era (1868-1912).

It was on this date that the system of a gengo = an emperor was set up.

Before this the gengo could change for various reasons. There is therefore a difference between the modern eras and those prior to the Meiji era.

Before 1868, a natural disaster or epidemic could be reason enough to begin a new era and start again from scratch.

Emperor Meiji

Public Domain

The Heisei era (1989-2019) was triggered by the death of Emperor Showa on January 7, 1989. The next day on January 8, a new emperor was named, his son Akihito.

To establish the new era, just a single day of reflection to decide the name was necessary, but there was a month-long transition period before officially entering the new era, giving administrations and the population time to adapt administrative documents, computer programs and all official documents.

Emperors Hirohito and Akihito accompanied by their wives


The Prime Minister chooses a panel of renowned scholars and asks them to propose potential names that would be appropriate for the new era. Everyone must propose several gengo and these gengo must consist of two kanji.

Note that the same kanji tend to appear pretty frequently, since 645 only 72 kanji have been used for 248 era names, of which 21 characters were used more than ten times!

The name must have a proper meaning relevant to the ideals and ambition of the nation, and have a positive meaning. It must also be constructed of kanji easy to read and write for all.

The announcement of the Heisei era

Yet the code of the imperial house stipulates that the emperor must maintain his office until death, as his predecessors did before him. It was therefore necessary to convince Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ministers to reconsider these strict laws.

In the face of a very conservative government, the law that the emperor must perform his duties until his death has not been changed, and Akihito alone has an ad hoc provision. Naruhito is warned!

The abdication of Akihito has triggered the end of Heisei and the beginning of a new era. The name of it was unveiled on Monday, April 1st, 2019: it will be known as REIWA. It will start on May 1st, 2019 with the coronation of the new Emperor Naruhito.

The Japanese imperial family

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