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HOME  > Past issues  > 2019 March 27 - April 2  > What are ‘gengo (era names)’ anyway?
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2019 March 27 - April 2 [SOCIAL ISSUES]

What are ‘gengo (era names)’ anyway?

April 2, 2019
The Abe government on April 1 announced that the current imperial era name will be changed to “Reiwa” after the new Emperor takes the throne on May 1. What are “gengo” anyway?

Gengo originated in ancient China where an emperor decided on the start of a new era and declared its name based on the idea that the monarch rules both the people and time itself. It is said that Emperor Wu of the Early Han Dynasty (BC202-AD8) was the first emperor to use an era name. Following the Chinese style, the use of era names or gengo began in Japan between the seventh century and the eighth century.

The system of “one era for one emperor” was also imported from China. In China, the system was first employed by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and lasted throughout the Qing Dynasty.

In Japan, until the end of the Edo “shogun” period (1603-1868), gengo was often altered, even without a regime change, in situations where either fortuitous events or natural disasters took place. Some emperors did not change the old gengo with a new one at the time of assuming the throne.

In 1868, the “one era for one emperor” system was introduced by the new government, which was formed under the restored imperial rule of the Meiji Emperor after the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, with the aim of instilling the idea that the emperor possesses absolute and divine power into the minds of the general public. The “one era-one emperor” system was stipulated in the prewar imperial household law specifying the order of succession to the imperial throne as well as in the former Regulations Governing the Accession to the Throne (Tokyokurei).

After the end of the war, the gengo system lost its legal basis due to the abolishment of the prewar imperial household law and Tokyokurei under the postwar Constitution of Japan. However, attempting to restore the emperor’s position as head of state, the Liberal Democratic Party-led government in 1979 enacted the Era Name Act and reestablished the legitimacy of the gengo system.

Like Japan’s gengo system, calendar systems vary among ethnic groups and religions. However, currently, the Gregorian calendar is the most common system in the world. Even in China, when the Qing Dynasty collapsed in the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the use of era names was terminated. Japan is the only nation which still uses era names.

Past related article:
> Shii: 'gengo' at odds with principle of popular sovereignty [March 2, 2019]
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