Welcome to the new Japanese 元号 (era) of 令和, GaijinPotters.
While the ascension of a new emperor is a time of great cultural changes and other such platitudes, for learners of Japanese this also offers us another opportunity: the chance to use some vocabulary that we would otherwise never get to use! Suddenly, we’re able to use words such as 譲位 (abdication), 即位の礼 (enthronement ceremony), 行幸啓 (official travel) and the word for the ancient book of poetry that the word 令和 was taken from, the 万葉集 (Manyoshu).
One of the problems, of course, is that it also brings up some of the linguistic confusion associated with historic events of this kind. One of the weaknesses that it exposed in my learning was that I was still in confusion about the correct way to refer to the emperor in Japanese. After all there are 皇帝, 天皇, 天皇制, 天皇陛下, 帝 and 御門 to consider!
Generally, 皇帝 is linked with all emperors, but not used to refer specifically to the Japanese one. An example of this is the ancient ローマ帝国 (Roman Empire) during the days when most of the world was either to the east of or to the west of Rome — including my hometown in England — and the 全ヒスパニアの皇帝 (Spanish emperor) was spreading his domain around much of the New World.
Interestingly, the kanji 皇 is also found in words associated with the Japanese emperor and his family, such as 皇居 (the Imperial Palace).
From there, things get a little more tricky. One of the keys to understanding that next bunch of words — 天皇, 天皇制 and 天皇陛下, is their first kanji, 天. The 天 relates to old stories that the royal family of Japan are divine and therefore associated with words like 天国 (heaven) and similar ideas. This contrasts with the rest of the royal family who are usually referred to using the word 殿下 (your highness).
One of the weaknesses that it exposed in my learning was that I was still in confusion about the correct way to refer to the emperor in Japanese.
One of the really fascinating things is that words like 天皇陛下 are actually a rare usage of Japanese 敬語 (honorific, or polite form) known as 最高敬語 (the exalted polite form). Thankfully, a lot of this language has become obsolete these days as it was notoriously difficult to use even for some Japanese people and the last thing we humble foreign students need is another form of 敬語 to learn!
The remaining two words for emperor, 帝 and 御門, are both considered a little dated now. These are mostly found in formal writing from bygone eras, although this word still pops up from time-to-time in the “regal” names of traditional restaurants (Mikado Sushi, for example) and hotels.
To further confuse things, when the current emperor Reiwa retires, his official title will change to 太上天皇 (also sometimes abbreviated to 上皇), which is something to watch out for if you are reading newspaper articles about the royal family.
How the Reiwa era name can help Japanese learners
Now that the name of the era is decided, one of the key things not to do (like I embarrassingly did), is to mistake the kanji 令 or 令 in 令和 for its some-time homophone, 冷, which can also be read れい (see 冷静, above, for example). Despite looking similar, 冷 is usually associated with the cooling of things, temperature-wise — 冷やす and 冷める, for example.
Instead our kanji, 令, is often found with words that indicate control or power. The most common is, of course, 命令 (order). Similar ideas associated with this include 指令 (command), 政令 (government order), 法令 (law) and for the advanced learners — 戒厳令 (martial law).
Despite looking similar, 冷 is usually associated with the cooling of things, temperature-wise — 冷やす and 冷める, for example.
It is also worth remembering this era’s kanji is used in other words like 辞令 where 令 has a meaning similar to “choice of,” in this case referring to a choice of language. Combining this with, for example, 外交 (diplomacy) makes 外交辞令 (diplomatic language) and combined with 社交 (social life) makes 社交辞令 (social etiquette).
Appropriately, for the name of a new Japanese era, the other kanji — 和 — is intimately associated with Japan and things Japanese, which is perhaps not surprising considering that the previous eras 昭和 (Showa, 1926), 享和 ( Kyuwa, 1801) and 明和 (Meiwa, 1764) have used the kanji.
Most learners first encounter this kanji in 和英辞典 (Japanese-English dictionary) and its counterpart 英和辞典 (English-Japanese dictionary). A similar thing is seen in 漢和 (Chinese-Japanese) and many other language combinations, too.
People living in more rural parts of town will also be familiar with 和 because — as I discussed in my recent post on Japanese terms for finding apartments and houses, both 和室 (Japanese rooms featuring tatami) and its sister “わ” word 和式 (Japanese style) use this kanji.
Some of the kanji that are commonly joined to this character include:文 (sentences), 服 (clothes), 語 (language), 歌 (song) and 風 (style) to create:
- 和文 (Japanese text)
- 和服 (Japanese-style clothing)
- 和語 (Words that originated in Japan instead of coming from China)
- 和歌 (a type of poetry that we dealt with in a previous article on Japanese literature)
- 和式 (Japanese style)
Naturally, because of its association with Japanese “things,” lots of 和食 (Japanese foods) are joined with this kanji, as well, to distinguish them from similar items that come from other countries. 和牛 (Japanese beef), 和菓子 (traditional Japanese sweets) and, of course, the incredibly delicious 和風 ドレッシング (Japanese-style salad dressing) are all other examples of where this kanji can be seen.
The final major usage of 和 is for words associated with peace and peacefulness. Terms such as 調和 (harmony), 柔和 (mild manner), 和議 (peace conference), 講和 (reconciliation) and 和む (to soften) are just some of the many examples of this. This usage can also be found in somewhat abstract ideas, including — presumably because of inner peace — 和尚 (monks) and even a concert full of (one presumes)… 協和 musical harmony.
Overall, even events as rare as the changing of an emperor and an era offer learners a chance to brush up on their language skills. One of the great things about learning Japanese is that, because you will see kanji that appear in a range of words used over and over again, it can be an opportunity to learn all of their uses. In the case of the new era, learners are also given the chance to practice some obscure vocabulary points and even an entirely new form of address (最高敬語 FTW!), so every time you see 令和 written or read an article about it — or reminisce about being here when it happened — you can drill all of these concepts.
Have you had a chance to use any of these regal words? Have you studied the new era’s kanji as a base for expanding your vocabulary — what did you learn? Let us know in the comments.