SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English
Song Han “My Thoughts on “GENGOH” “
The hot topic right now (as of March, 2019) is the title of the new imperial era (“GENGOH” 元号). With the change in the name of the imperial era, there will be a huge impact on Japanese society. I, as a specialist of Chinese literature, am interested in the news which reports that Japanese classical literature is being studied as a source for the name.
In the past, it was a usual practice to select the name from Chinese classical literature. According to sources, however, “Kojiki (古事記）” and “Nihon Shoki（日本書紀）” (both about the birth of Japan) have been taken up vigorously for discussion this time.
Some people say that this is nonsense because both “Kojiki” and “Nihon Shoki” are based on Chinese classics. As such, people may say that no matter what the name of the new era will come from Chinese classics. Others say that such arguments are nonsense and that it is important to take the name from Japanese classics. It seems that the point in this dispute is the uniqueness of Japanese culture. I, as a foreigner, am not in a position to join this controversy. However, I would like to share my thoughts because the culture of the imperial era system came from China.
The era name is a numbering system (calendar era) which takes one year as a unit, just like AD (Anno Domini) or the Christian Era, which we are using commonly now. According to research by Zhao Yi (趙翼), a historian of the Qing Dynasty (19th century), “建元”, which was enacted by Emperor Wu of Han (漢の武帝) in BC 140 and which was the first era named in East Asia. Emperor Wu of Han was one of the most prominent absolute monarchs in Chinese history, and it is said that the resolute ruling system established in the Han dynasty unified the kingdom. You may think I am digressing from the topic of the name of the imperial era in Japan, but this actually has a lot to do with it. In the year BC45, Julius Caesar established the Julius calendar. This naming meant that the ancient nation dominated not only land (space) but also time. It was essential for farmers to follow the calendar for farming. In ancient times, a nation itself could calculate and declare the calendar every year. As such, the era name was a symbolic system to dominate time in a country.
It is easy to understand the importance of the calendar in the Three Kingdoms Period (Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), Wu (呉) )in ancient Chinese society (3rd century).
― details of the history of the Three Kingdoms are omitted ―
The oldest era name in Japan is “Taika”, established during the rule of Emperor Koutoku. It is well-known because of the Taika Reform (大化の改新) (AD 645). Because top-level people at the time understood well the meaning of naming an era, through this Japan expressed itself to the world as an independent nation for the first time. After Taika, era names have continued though there have been discontinuations for short periods. When I think of the new era name against this background and history, I am deeply interested in what it will be.
In ancient Japan, it was as an expression of being an independent nation that the era name was adopted from Chinese classics. However, it is now considered as undignified by some intellectuals to have an era name taken from Chinese classics. Individuality, which has been considered as unchanging despite the passing of time, may change in meaning depending on the values of the time. The era name is not limited to Japan and we can say the same of the cultures of other nations. There is no human that does not desire themselves, their communities, their society, or their country to be essentially unique and original. Anybody can try to argue against this, but people (including myself) may unintentionally show their nationalistic attitude in doing so. When we analyze the individuality of cultures, we may be able to say that Iraq, Syria and Egypt – countries which were the cradle of culture – are particularly original . Or, perhaps it is Africa, as the birthplace of all human beings, that has originality.
I will stop this dreary discussion here. But, being given this opportunity, I would like to add one more dreary saying by Ryunosuke Akutagawa: “Culture is a match-box. It is ridiculous to handle a match-box seriously. But, if you handle it carelessly, it will be dangerous.”
（Song Han / Associate Professor (Japanese Literature), Ferris University）
Translated by Kazuo Kawamura
English checked by Sonja Dale