On 1 May 2019 they welcomed a young new Emperor and the dawn of a new era filled with the promise of a fresh start: Reiwa (令和). Heisei has passed.
“Analysts expect the transition to Reiwa to generate over 500 billion yen ($A6.45 billion) in economic activity.”
Culturally, this is a profound event and how it plays out will be fascinating. For business, a new era brings with it a marketing bonanza - particularly as the ceremonial transition occurred in tandem with an unprecedented 10 day holiday period.
Analysts expect the transition to Reiwa to generate over 500 billion yen ($A6.45 billion) in economic activity, a big chunk coming from weddings and other celebratory events, tourism and sales of memorabilia.
In one of those “only in Japan” examples catering to those not quite ready to let go of the past, an enterprising firm in Gifu Prefecture cashed in by selling “Heisei” cans filled with nothing more than a lucky 5 yen coin and "air from the Heisei Era" for a mere 1,000 yen ($A13) each.
What’s in a name you may ask? Reiwa as an era name was an unexpected pick when formally unveiled to the Japanese public one month before the countdown to the end of the 30-year Heisei era on 1 April 2019.
What makes it different is that it is purely Japanese. Unlike the names for previous Imperial era in Japan which were adopted from Chinese classics, Reiwa has its roots in “Manyoshu”, Japanese classical poetry from over 1,200 years ago. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained on live TV, the expert panel chose Reiwa because they felt it was important to send a message about being Japanese, first and foremost.
The poem from which Reiwa was selected describes the flowering of Japanese ume plum trees after surviving a harsh winter. Similarly, the Japanese government hopes Reiwa will project to the people a sense of hope and new possibility as we enter an age of rapid technological, societal and economic change.
As they graduate from 30 years of the Heisei Era (Achieving Peace), blessed with peace but marked by economic deflation and a series of natural disasters, into the Reiwa Era (Beautiful Harmony), Japan wants to the world know Japanese culture is something to be proud of. And just like the farmers, artisans and traders who all contributed to the writing of the “Manyoshu” so long ago, Japan will need its entire people to maximise its potential, not only to survive but to thrive during the Reiwa Era.
This transition has been unique in more ways than one. The most significant aspect being the license to celebrate that Emperor Emeritus Akihito bestowed on the Japanese people with his decision to abdicate and facilitate the first transition of power by a living Emperor in more than 200 years.
Rather than a required period of mourning following the death of the Emperor, the transition to Reiwa was marked by joyful anticipation of a new age dawning and nostalgic reflection on the events, people and achievements that defined the Heisei era.
What this meant for business in the short-term was a golden opportunity to plan and prepare for a major psychological re-set felt deeply by all people in Japan and across all generations.
There were those who rushed to be married during Heisei and those who wanted to time their special day with the advent of Reiwa. Local governments announced gifts, registration desks at historic locations and other enticements to encourage couples to register their marriage during the first week. And - while it is more difficult to time - there were couples whose babies were blessed with the good fortune of being the first to be born during the early hours of Reiwa, attracting special attention and treatment.
The almost unheard of 10-day Golden Week holiday declared by the Japanese Government well in advance gave consumers plenty of opportunity to think of how they were going to celebrate and businesses time to create new experiences.
Commemorative coins and collectors’ items sold out like hot cakes, while the very significant industry segment producing stamps, seals, calendars and other items bearing the name of the new era (which is commonly used in place of the Western calendar in everyday Japanese life) went into overdrive trying to meet the 30 day production deadline.
Not to be left behind as the nation moves forward, within the first two weeks after the new name was revealed, over 30 Japanese companies changed their names to include the word “Reiwa”, further underscoring the importance of establishing a corporate image in Japan that resonates with your customers. Trademark applications, similarly, have skyrocketed in anticipation of new marketing campaigns.
A shot in the arm from a major celebration is welcome in any economy but what about the longer-term impact of and expectations for Reiwa?
Broadly speaking, the generational change in the Imperial monarchy has given Japanese people cause for hope and renewed optimism. The Emperor is the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.
He (not yet she) has no political power to intervene in affairs of state under Japan’s post-war constitution but can reach out to the Japanese people in a way that could never be replicated by any political party or leader.
Both Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako were educated overseas at Oxford and Harvard Universities respectively and speak several languages between them. There are great hopes that soft diplomacy on the part of the new Imperial couple will further advance and modernise Japan’s standing on the world stage. Neither of them has experienced war in their lifetimes, although Emperor Naruhito has expressed his intention, like his father before him, to remain committed to achieving world peace.
Many hope Emperor Naruhito will show interest in connecting with a younger generation, in global issues such as climate change or water resource management (his thesis at Oxford was on the history of water transportation on the River Thames) and in supporting the achievement of sustainable development goals.
As one ardent Imperial watcher put it: “For better or worse, this country changed whenever a new emperor took the throne. The world is getting bigger every day. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will help us build bridges with other countries.”
All walks of life
The Japanese government, for its part, has embraced this generational change and fully intends to take advantage of the psychological re-set the dawn of the Reiwa era brings. The 2019 year marks a new opportunity for Japan to assert itself on the world stage as host of the G20 Summit in Osaka and the Rugby World Cup, followed by the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 that will undoubtedly bring both economic benefits to Japan in addition to boosting national pride.
For businesses in Japan, or those looking to enter the Japanese market in the business-to-consumer space, Reiwa is a unique opportunity to re-engage with the target customer base. How to look, feel and generally “be” in the new era of Reiwa is open to interpretation and a subject of hot discussion.
Shiseido’s latest online campaign compares the past fashion looks of “Heisei” with how to look trendy in “Reiwa”, in a classic example of advertising designed to capitalise on a national makeover - including the launch of a “Manyoshu” inspired perfume and face powder range.
But “Manyoshu” is more than simply an ancient collection of classical Japanese literature that has been conveniently revived. If Japan can finally embrace the talents of all its citizens, in the true spirit of the “Manyoshu” poetry written inclusively by people from all walks of life, the Reiwa era may indeed have some chance of delivering the “Beautiful Harmony” it promises.
After all, while Heisei did indeed deliver peace, economically Japan’s “lost decade” of the 90s has dragged on for almost another two. For Japan, greater diversity in public office and more opportunity for all in public life is an enormous opportunity for this new era.
Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade, and Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan, based in Tokyo.