It’s the dawning of the age of … something.
Japan will reveal the name of the country’s next era on April 1, as the country prepares for the abdication of Emperor Akihito later this year.
The current Heisei Era began in 1989, when Akihito succeeded his father Emperor Hirohito, who ruled during the Showa period and is now known as the Showa Emperor.
Akihito, soon to be known as the Heisei Emperor, will become the first Japanese monarch in 200 years to step down, relinquishing the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who will become the 126th emperor on May 1.
Eras are about more than who is the emperor of the day. They are also, for example, the basis of the Japanese calendar system: 2018 was Heisei 30, coming three decades after the era began.
While the current system aligns with the rule of the emperors, this has not always been the case. In the past, new eras were declared to mark historical moments.
For example, the Ansei period, beginning on November 27, 1854, on the Gregorian calendar, was adopted following a number of natural disasters and a fire at the imperial palace. The name Ansei means “tranquil government” and was intended to herald a peaceful period.
Era names can also become political. The Showa era, the name of which can be interpreted to mean “period of radiant Japan,” spanned the rise of Japanese fascism and nationalism, when imperial troops under the Rising Sun banner invaded numerous neighboring countries. This attitude is sometimes called Showa Nationalism.
Japanese people often identify strongly with their own eras – and the naming of the next one is an incredibly important process.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet will decide the name of the new era on Monday, April 1, after which it will be made public.
Information about how the name of the era is being decided and discussions around it have been closely guarded.
On Sunday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the names of academics and other experts who are advising the government will not be made public, nor will the person or persons who proposed the chosen name be revealed.
While the naming of a new era will be a largely symbolic affair, a time for Japan to collectively turn a new page, the transition also presents a more immediate technical challenge.
Microsoft has warned that Japanese computer software, most of which was written in the Heisei era, could face a Y2K moment, because Japanese calendar years are described by a combination of the year and era name.
In the run up to the current millennium, concerns were raised that many computer programs represented four-digit years with only their last two digits. So, the years 2000 and 1900 would be indistinguishable.
Millions of dollars were spent safeguarding against the so-called Millennium Bug.
“For the Y2K event, there was worldwide recognition of the upcoming change, resulting in governments and software vendors beginning to work on solutions for that problem several years before 1 Jan, 2000,” Microsoft developer Shawn Steele wrote on one of the company’s blogs. “Even with that preparation many organizations encountered problems due to the millennial transition.”
Steele warned that “after the era has changed it will be too late to test for compatibility problems.”
While Microsoft and other large firms have put checks in place, the government has warned smaller companies not to be complacent.
According to public broadcaster NHK, a survey last month found that about 20% of companies had not checked whether calendars in their software use the Japanese system.
“Industry ministry officials warn that insufficient preparations could lead to unrecognized dates and the possibility of data-processing errors,” NHK reported.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the start of the Ansei Era, which was the year 1854.