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Reiwa: A ‘Beautiful Harmony’ of Japanese Words Old and New

The new era is an opportunity to learn about majestic words both common and obscure.

By 5 min read

Welcome to the new Japanese 元号げんごう (era) of 令和れいわ, 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 譲位じょうい (abdication), 即位の礼そくいのれい (enthronement ceremony), 行幸啓ぎょうこうけい (official travel) and the word for the ancient book of poetry that the word 令和 was taken from, the 万葉集まんようしゅう (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 皇帝こうてい, 天皇てんのう, 天皇制てんのうせい, 天皇陛下てんのうへいか, てい and 御門みかど to consider!

Reiwa: The Start of a New Era in Japan

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 ローマ帝国ていこく (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 ぜんヒスパニアの皇帝 (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 皇居こうきょ (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, てん. The 天 relates to old stories that the royal family of Japan are divine and therefore associated with words like 天国てんごく (heaven) and similar ideas. This contrasts with the rest of the royal family who are usually referred to using the word 殿下でんか (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 敬語けいご (honorific, or polite form) known as 最高敬語さいこうけいご (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 太上天皇だいじょうてんのう (also sometimes abbreviated to 上皇じょうこう), 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 れい or りおう in 令和 for its some-time homophone, 冷, which can also be read れい (see 冷静れいせい, above, for example). Despite looking similar, 冷 is usually associated with the cooling of things, temperature-wise — やす and める, for example.

Instead our kanji, 令, is often found with words that indicate control or power. The most common is, of course, 命令めいれい (order). Similar ideas associated with this include 指令しれい (command), 政令せいれい (government order), 法令ほうれい (law) and for the advanced learners — 戒厳令かいげんれい (martial law).

Despite looking similar, 冷 is usually associated with the cooling of things, temperature-wise — やす and める, for example.

It is also worth remembering this era’s kanji is used in other words like 辞令じれい where 令 has a meaning similar to “choice of,” in this case referring to a choice of language. Combining this with, for example, 外交がいこう (diplomacy) makes 外交辞令がいこうじれい (diplomatic language) and combined with 社交しゃこう (social life) makes 社交辞令しゃこうじれい (social etiquette).

Appropriately, for the name of a new Japanese era, the other kanji — — is intimately associated with Japan and things Japanese, which is perhaps not surprising considering that the previous eras 昭和しょうわ (Showa, 1926), 享和きょうわ ( Kyuwa, 1801) and 明和めいわ (Meiwa, 1764) have used the kanji.

Most learners first encounter this kanji in 和英辞典わえいじてん (Japanese-English dictionary) and its counterpart 英和辞典えいわじてん (English-Japanese dictionary). A similar thing is seen in 漢和かんわ (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 和室わしつ (Japanese rooms featuring tatami) and its sister “わ” word 和式わしき (Japanese style) use this kanji.

A Timeline of Emperor Akihito’s Reign of Japan

Some of the kanji that are commonly joined to this character include:ぶん (sentences), ふく (clothes), (language), うた (song) and かぜ (style) to create:

Naturally, because of its association with Japanese “things,” lots of 和食わしょく (Japanese foods) are joined with this kanji, as well, to distinguish them from similar items that come from other countries. 和牛わぎゅう (Japanese beef), 和菓子わがし (traditional Japanese sweets) and, of course, the incredibly delicious 和風わふう 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 調和ちょうわ (harmony), 柔和にゅうわ (mild manner), 和議わぎ (peace conference), 講和こうわ (reconciliation) and なごむ (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 — 和尚おしょう (monks) and even a concert full of (one presumes)… 協和きょうわ 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.

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