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On May 1, a new era began. For the first time in more than two centuries, Japan’s emperor stepped down and passed the Chrysanthemum Throne to his successor. The act means a reset of the country’s calendar to year one. The gengo system, which uses names for the imperial era, carries cultural significance—something that can be seen in the name chosen for the new period, Reiwa, and how it has been received.

The Heisei Period, which began in 1989, came at a time when Japan’s fortunes were facing a downturn. Signs of economic trouble were already visible when Emperor Akihito took over from his father, Hirohito, to end the Showa Period. And, in 1991, the famed bubble economy burst.

It was the first of a number of events during the 31-year era that dampened the mood of the country. In 1995, a devastating earthquake struck Kobe. In the same year, domestic terrorism targeted the Tokyo subway system. And, in 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever to strike Japan triggered a devastating tsunami and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

An era that began with pessimism gave way to more pessi­mism. But Japan is a resilient country, and a rise in tourism, stability in government, promising turns in business and trade, and global events such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Rugby World Cup 2019 have made the mood different this time.

Reiwa, the name of the era over which Emperor Naruhito will preside, is being welcomed with excitement and enthusiasm. Announced on April 1, it is the first gengo name to come from a Japanese source. Literally meaning “orderly harmony,” it was taken from a poem about plum blossoms in the Manyoshu, the oldest printed collection of Japanese poetry, which was compiled in the eighth century. In his address, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his Cabinet’s interpretation of the new era’s name includes the idea that “culture is born through the beauty of people caring for one another.” The name is said to carry Japan’s traditions into the new age.

With a new era comes new money, and Tokyo announced on April 9 that new ¥10,000, ¥5,000, and ¥1,000 notes will be introduced in the first half of fiscal 2024. The bills will feature three new historical figures:

  • Eiichi Shibusawa, who played a key role in modernizing the Japanese economy (¥10,000)
  • Umeko Tsuda, founder of Tsuda University in Tokyo and pioneer in the education of Japanese women in the early 20th century (¥5,000)
  • Shibasaburo Kitasato, a bacteriologist who helped build the foundation of modern medical science in Japan (¥1,000)

The back of the notes will feature illustrations of the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station (¥10,000), wisteria flowers (¥5,000), and ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

As a reflection of tech advancements in the new age, the bills with feature 3D holographic portraits to combat counter­feiting, the first such implementation of the technology in a national currency. Not to be left out, the ¥500 coin is also set for a refresh in 2021.

According to Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd., a lot. Some 30 companies have already made Reiwa part of their corporate names since the April 1 announcement. This includes newly established and existing companies. One example is Heisei Shoseki, a Tokyo-based publisher founded in April of last year. The company is now known as Reiwa Shoseki.

An imperial change is a business opportunity that typically comes around every few decades, and many businesses are tapping in to the celebratory mood by introducing a range of Reiwa-themed products.

Kintaro-ame is a traditional hard candy that, when sliced, typically shows the face of Kintaro, a heroic boy from a Japanese folklore or other figures and ima­gery. In Tokyo’s Taito Ward, Kintaro-ame Honten, a traditional con­fectionary, began making comme­morative candies bearing the two kanji characters that read Reiwa just moments after the announcement.

Similarly, Peyoung, maker of instant yakisoba, is adding some class to its noodles by including a celebratory gold-dust topping.

And for an American twist, the Oak Door Steakhouse at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo is offering an enormous hamburger to comme­morate the end of Heisei and welcome Reiwa. Called the Golden Giant Burger, the im­­mense creation spans 10 inches and weighs a whopping 6.6 pounds. Served between gold-dusted buns, it also contains slices of truffle-garnished kuroge wagyu beef on top of a 2.2-pound American prime-beef patty.

Photo: Grand Hyatt Tokyo

All of this (above) is garnished with cherry tomatoes,
foie gras, cheddar cheese, lettuce, aioli sauce, and two whole sliced onions. The cost? ¥100,000. Ideally to be split among six people, this is a delicious, deca­dent—and not inexpensive—way to bring in the new age.

Sticking with a culinary theme, Kamigokoro Shuzo Co., Ltd. is offering a limited-edition sparkling nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) from Okayama Prefecture. Manufactured and distributed by Sake Lovers, Inc., this special “Reiwashu” is made using peach yeast for an all-natural secondary fermen­tation process. The low 5.5-percent alcohol content—nihonshu usually ranges from 14 to 16 percent—makes this sparkling version taste more like Champagne. The hope is that it will appeal to consumers who typically do not like sake to encourage the consumption of the traditional drink in the new era.


Yuki Imanishi, founder and chief executive officer of Sake Lovers, is challenging the industry to revive small craft-sake breweries across Japan and is using the imperial changeover to do so.

The 108-year-old Kamigokoro Shuzo is one brewery strengthened by this mission. Sake Lovers approached the Japan Cancer Society in the hopes of incorporating the Pink Ribbon Campaign into the special edition drink. Part of the proceeds from the sales of Reiwashu will be donated to the society’s campaign to help bring more attention to the disease. Julia Marino, a breast cancer survivor who designed the bottle’s label, wishes to promote the well-being and livelihood of women through sake.

Many travel agencies arranged special packages that bridged the transition from Heisei to Reiwa. JTB Corporation’s three-day tour started on April 30, the final day of the Heisei Period, that featured a visit to the Ise Grand Shrine, a complex of more than 125 shrines in the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture that is important to Japan’s traditional and indigenous Shinto religion.

Another Shinto-related tour from Nippon Travel Agency Co. included a train ride between Osaka Station and Izumoshi Station in Shimane Prefecture to visit the Izumo Oyashiro Shrine. The Salon Car Naniwa train, operated by West Japan Railway Company, left Osaka Station on the night of April 30. Aboard the train, participants were set to celebrate the moment the Heisei Period ended and the Reiwa Period began at the stroke of midnight. Commemorative tickets stamped with the dates of Heisei and Reiwa were to be handed out as souvenirs.

For a more symbolic experience, the era-change tours from Club Tourism International Inc. included one in which parti­­cipants viewed the sunset on the last day of Heisei from Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower, and another in which customers viewed Mount Fuji and the first sunrise of Reiwa from a chartered plane.

There were even some special celebrations offered to new­lyweds at the start of Reiwa. Japan’s local governments offered something special—including offering gifts and commemorative photos—for those who registered their marriage on the first day of the new era.

The city of Kaga, in the central-Japan prefecture of Ishikawa, opened marriage registration counters from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on May 1. While their registration was being processed, couples were photographed standing in front of a cardboard background illustrated with hearts. The photos were then framed and presented to the newlyweds.

Okayama Prefecture marked the day by setting up a counter to accept marriage registrations at Okayama Castle’s Akazu Gate. The government of the capital city, also named Okayama, used special marriage papers with illustrations of the castle and Momotaro (Peach Boy), a popular hero of Japanese folklore who originates from Okayama Prefecture and is said to have been born from a giant peach.

As can be seen, the country’s mood this time is much brighter and more positive than it was in 1989. The historic change is bringing excitement to the Japanese population, and celebrations across the country—put on by city and prefectural governments, restaurants, businesses, and more—have highlighted the possi­bilities the new era represents. Reiwa offers a chance to move away from a period of hardship towards a future of renewed confidence and prosperity.

Megan Casson is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.
Some 30 companies have already made Reiwa part of their corporate names since the April 1 announcement.