Yesterday, the Heisei Era of Japan, marked by the reign of Emperor Akihito, came to a close and today, the Reiwa Era under his son Emperor Naruhito begins.
Reiwa begins as a new era should, warm and sunny, green with optimism for the future. Unlike almost every other new era which is preceded by the death of an Emperor, Akihito requested to abdicate the throne to retire to a less stressful life, so today, Japan isn’t burdened with mourning the death of an Emperor, just welcoming a new one. Children hunt small fish and bugs with nets along the clear stream alongside their mothers and fathers. An octogenarian pauses on the path to wipe the sweat from his brow and watch the families enjoying their day. It could be any beautiful Spring day, but it isn’t. It is Reiwa Era, Day One. It’s the day that sets the tone for the future.
Reiwa 令和, we’ve been told, is translated as “beautiful harmony”. The kanji (Chinese characters) are so laden with meaning, an official translation was necessary to help people understand the context of the name, which comes from an ancient book of Japanese poetry. Prime Minister Abe said that Reiwa represents “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully”.
It turns out that many Japanese were ready for a change in eras. The Heisei era, though a time of peace for Japan, encompasses many memories Japanese people would rather forget: several major natural disasters including the tragic triple disaster of 2011 that claimed the lives of over 18,000 people and left cities in beautiful Fukushima Prefecture still uninhabitable. It was also on the Heisei watch that Japan experienced its first major act of domestic terrorism when the Tokyo subway was attacked with sarin gas in 1995.
Former Emperor Akihito did an admirable job as a spokesman for peace and ownership of the wartime atrocities Japan committed on its enemies (some of which his father, Hirohito, was at least indirectly responsible for). From all recent reports, Emperor Naruhito will continue the work his father started, reminding the present and future generations of Japanese who did not experience WW2 about its horrors and Japan’s role as an aggressor.
We also pray that the new era will be an era of “beautiful harmony” for Japan, but rather than simply the harmony of people building society together, we pray that Japan’s harmony come from a newly discovered relationship with their Creator God. The hardships of the Heisei Era caused many Japanese to consider the meaning of life closely and through the witness of many Christians who have served the needs of those displaced by natural disaster, the elderly, the disabled, the widows and orphans, Japanese people have come to have a more and more favorable view of Christianity. It should not even be a surprise that Christian influence on the Imperial family, who represent the Shinto religion itself, has been very prominent in the past 3 generations.
Isaiah 43 reminds us that God is working for our good and I believe His promise holds true for the nation of Japan:
“Remember not the former things,Isaiah 43:18-20
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The Reiwa Era will likely continue for the next 30 years or more, much like the length of the Heisei Era before. We cannot anticipate the changes in Japan over the next three decades, let alone the world. But we can believe that God’s love for His people in Japan will be seen as undeniable in this era and His people will respond to the persistent calls of their Heavenly Father who invites them into His loving arms.