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The Emperor of Japan has changed [Heisei to Reiwa]- Change of Era


2019 is a special year in Japan.  The name of the Japanese Era, “Gengou”, will change from Heisei to Reiwa on 1st May.  It is a very historic moment because of the way the change has come about.

Change of the Emperor, New Gengou

The name of the Japanese era, Gengou, changes when the reign of the new emperor begins.  The last time it changed from Showa to Heisei was 1989, when the Showa Emperor passed away after a long period of illness.  TV channels continuously reported on his condition until the sad news came in on 7th January.  The new Gengou, “Heisei” was announced on the same day, and the new era started on 8th January 1989, when the current emperor was enthroned. A panel of experts, consisting of historians and linguists, picked it to wish for a peaceful and fulfilling time ahead.

It was a typical procedure for the change of Gengou, of which Heisei was the 247th in history. There have been occasions when exceptional events such as wars, famines, or political unrests, prompted the reigning emperor to change the name to leave bad times behind. The last time Gengou changed without the death of a reigning Emperor was in 1817.

The changes therefore typically came without any formal notice period.  But this time, from Heisei to Reiwa, there was a clear schedule. People were free to look back, look forward, and be prepared without mourning.

Heisei Emperor announced his wish to retire in December 2016, during a rare televised address to the public. The government thereafter prepared for a smooth handover by introducing the necessary legislation, and determining the best dates for this unprecedented event. The roadmap was laid out in December 2017:  The retirement was scheduled to take place on 30th April 2019, and the enthronement on 1st May.

Market Going Campaign on Nostalgia

This predetermined abdication gave businesses in Japan a unique opportunity to launch a year-long marketing campaign for the latter days of Heisei.

Summer 2018 was the last chance to make a holiday memory of Heisei.  The end of 2018 was the last of Heisei, and many caterers suggested making it memorable with Christmas and New Year celebration parties. Confectionary companies launched a fightback campaign on Valentine’s Day, as interest started to wane (please see the article on 8th February 2018).

Many of them involved sending in photographs on social media to enter competitions.

Constant uploading of photographs, looking back at 30 years of the Heisei period, indulged much nostalgia, and many more followed to share their memories. For example, clothing retailers asked customers to name their favourite brands throughout Heisei and sent the in relevant pictures. The winner would get a supply of clothing items from their favourite designers. Another would post scenes from throwback Heisei Karaoke parties.

The last 30 years of the Heisei Era saw a lot of social changes. Fashion trends changed very dramatically, starting from Body-con suits to loose socks and mini skirts.  J League, Japan’s professional football league started and grew with many players competing in international leagues. Game consoles and software improved significantly, and then integrated and enhanced with the smartphone in the last ten years. Many phenomena that people take for granted now did not then exist. There was plenty to look back at.

… and Moving on to New Era

Once the government announced that the new Gengou would be revealed on 1st April, there was a chance for everyone to submit their guess to win all sort of things.  It is reported that one person won a meal voucher from a chain of bars.

The timing of the announcement and handovers was welcomed.  The end of March and thevbeginning of April marks the change of the fiscal year in Japan. (The date was not set for 31st March/1st April, not to coincide with the budgetary changeover).  It is a season of farewells and new starts, perfect for promotions or offers of discounts for parties, gift items, clothing and small electrical goods.

Also, the government announced extra public holidays to mark the historic occasion and Japan will enjoy consecutive public holiday from 27th April until 6th May. The travel and event industries are busy promoting the trip to remember Heisei or the first holiday in the new Reiwa era, with a message such as “where will you be to celebrate the changeover?”.

On 1st April, the new Gengou was announced to be REIWA.  This means to gather together in peace, taken from a phrase in Manyou shu, the collection of poems.  After frantic marketing battles and competitions, there will be an interlude of relative peace, before a new cycle of marketing and promotion starts.

Everyone is looking for new products and services that will become the legacy of REIWA.


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