In Japan, loyalty to tradition often wins out over practicability. A case in point is the Japanese language itself, which uses a mercurial combination of three wholly different scripts:
. Another example, currently in the news, is Japan’s traditional
calendar system, a custom that is causing furrowed brows amongst a diverse cast of characters — from diary publishers to postal services officials. The reason is the looming abdication of the current Emperor, Akihito.
Unlike the internationally standard, Gregorian calendar, the
counts up from the coronation of a new Emperor, using not the name of the monarch, but the name of the era they herald. Akihito’s coronation in January 1989 had marked the beginning of the ‘Heisei era’, and the end of the ‘Showa era’ of his predecessor, Emperor Hirohito. The current year, 2018, for example, is ‘Heisei 30’ in the Japanese calendar, since it is the 30th year of Heisei Emperor Akihito’s reign.
It will also be his last. On April 30, 2019, Akihito will abdicate, the first time an Emperor has voluntarily given up the Chrysanthemum Throne in 200 years. Crown Prince Naruhito’s coronation on the following day will mark the beginning of a new
. The problem is that the name of this new era remains unknown. Announcing it in advance can seem akin to pre-empting an Emperor’s death and therefore come across as deeply offensive.
Consequently, there is currently no way of accurately talking about time beyond May 1, 2019. The change of
next year is particularly challenging for computer systems, since the Heisei era has been existent for most of the computer age. There are concerns that the IT systems of postal service, banks and the register of residential addresses maintained by local governments may grind to a halt. The magnitude of the effect of next year’s era change on computing systems using the Japanese calendar may be similar to the Y2K event with the Gregorian calendar.
Abolishing the gengo
While software engineers are busy working out solutions, the impending change is reigniting the wider debate about whether to discard the
system altogether. Although many Japanese feel an emotional attachment to it, few would dispute that it is a cumbersome way of marking time.
Given that Japan has had almost 250
periods since the seventh century, even educated people require an encyclopedia and a calculator to accurately decode historical dates.
One indication that the traditional calendar may be in trouble is a recent draft revision of the traffic law, which calls for the expiration dates on driving licenses to switch to the Gregorian calendar.
The argument for abolishing
has been made before. For example, in 1950, the Science Council of Japan proposed scrapping it, reasoning that era names were ill-suited to a democracy. Then, as now, the move was met with resistance from conservatives, who are a political majority in Japan.
For conservatives, attempts to reform traditional practices are viewed through the prism of the ultimate reform — abolition of the imperial system — a red line they are unwilling to countenance. They fear that changing the traditional calendar might open a Pandora’s box that would ultimately threaten the legitimacy of the imperial ideology itself.
Consequently, traffic law notwithstanding, the
calendar will likely succeed the Emperor’s abdication, so that in Japan, the future is, literally, uncertain.
The abdication of Akihito next year will herald a new era, and a new calendar. There are concerns that IT systems — tuned to the current Heisei era — may come to a halt, affecting key services
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