JOK Notebook

Interpreting the New Era Name 令和

How strange it must be to name an era that has not yet begun. That would be like choosing a name for a dog before seeing what she looks like or how she behaves. What if there's a complete mismatch with the name and the reality of who she turns out to be? I understand that choosing an era name in Japan is a way of expressing hope about what that era will be like, and yet I can't imagine how one does it with no data at hand.

Be that as it may, the next era in Japan will be called 令和 (れいわ). Here's how my proofreader and I defined each character in the past:

令 (603: command, orders; law)

和 (416: harmony; to soften; Japan)

My newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter were ablaze as Westerners expressed discomfort with the idea of "commanding harmony" or "commanding peace." 

Some see a nefarious motivation in the choice of 令和, as historian Nick Kapur capably explains in a widely read Twitter thread. He addresses fears that the new name heralds a return to prewar militaristic passions and authoritarianism.

Others, including a mild-mannered Japanese professor in my yoga class, feel that we should look past recent history and focus on the pleasant meanings that the kanji once had. The two characters were supposedly drawn from a poem in the Man'yoshu, an eighth-century poetry anthology. The poem in question, "Plum Songs," refers to "splendid" or "fair" (令) spring weather and "gentle" or "soft" (和) wind, with the 令 heading up the archaic word 令月 (れいげつ: auspicious month). The choice of 令和 inspired a blogger to analyze the poem. That writer (who seems to be a native Japanese speaker) feels that only the original meanings of the two characters matter in an interpretation of the new era name—not recent history. 

Kapur doesn't buy it: "Insisting on a translation that honors only the original Man'yōshū poem is to take the government's explanation entirely at face value."

Some Japanese people dislike that 和 has already played a role in 19 era names—including 元和 (げんな or げんわ: 1615–1624) and 昭和 (しょうわ: 1926–1989). Initially, 令和 struck one of my proofreaders as old-fashioned for that reason. 

Besides overuse, though, there are other reasons to object to 和. Nick Kapur puts it well, noting that the Showa era of Emperor Hirohito was "disastrous," including "militarism, World War II, atomic bombings, and defeat."

If 和 brings up strong feelings, I think 令 transports people in an even more powerful way to uncomfortable associations. One Joy o' Kanji reader emailed me from Australia, disgruntled with 令 for its connotations of "obedience" and "order" and calling it "very feudalistic." 

I am incredibly impressed that he and so many other nonnative speakers have internalized the feelings of kanji to such an extent that the mere thought of 和 and 令 provokes them in that way. As for me, I was drawing a blank about 令 and couldn't help wondering which 令 words were on their minds. Also, being thorough by nature, I wanted to see if 令 had only negative connotations or whether it had any redeeming features. After all, people online keep saying that both 令 and 和 have a multitude of meanings, which is precisely what leaves 令和 open to interpretation and to such heated discussions.

On 令

I started my exploration by looking at 令, turning to Henshall's etymology. Wow, is it a doozy in light of this discussion! He says that the bottom half represents a "kneeling person" and that the top half symbolizes "cover," acting phonetically here to express "summon" and probably also lending the idea of "imposing from above." Thus, he says, 令 "originally referred to people summoned to hear the orders of their lord." Gack!

After that, I turned to dictionaries to see 令 in action, immediately finding this: 

令する (れいする: to command; to order)

Well, there it is—the naked meaning of this character without other kanji to influence the definition. It's hard to deny the hierarchy and severity inherent in that verb.

The next term also lies at the crux of the matter:

命令 (めいれい: command, orders; edict, decree)

It has scads of spinoffs, many of them mere computer terms but quite a few consisting of types of orders handed down from on high. A deployment order, an order requiring someone to report personally to a police station... What a sick feeling I had while scanning the list.

The next group of words bolsters the sense that 令 is bad news for those who distrust authority and disdain the military:

威令 (いれい: authority)

号令 (ごうれい: giving an order, command)

密令 (みつれい: secret orders)

戒厳令 (かいげんれい: martial law)

詔令 (しょうれい: imperial edict)

Rhymes are usually fun, but not in this case:

軍令 (ぐんれい: military command)

訓令 (くんれい: instructions, (official) orders, directive)

I discovered that 令 is associated with lots and lots of rules:

禁令 (きんれい: prohibition; ban; embargo)

制令 (せいれい: regulations)

消灯令 (しょうとうれい: curfew)

Ordinances, too:

政令 (せいれい: government ordinance, cabinet order)

県令 (けんれい: prefectural ordinance)

法令 (ほうれい: laws and ordinances, statute)

In fact, 令 is in so many terms about orders that there are three しれい homonyms and a spinoff, all including 令:

使令 (しれい: (1) giving orders to someone and making use of him; (2) servant)

指令 (しれい: order, instruction)

司令 (しれい: commanding; commander, commandant)

司令部 (しれいぶ: headquarters)

"Giving orders to someone and making use of him"! As Brits say, blimey! 

Just when I was about to throw up my hands in despair, I came across terms that aren't nearly so worrisome. For instance, whereas 訓令 (くんれい: instructions, (official) orders, directive) sets my teeth on edge, this spinoff will interest students of Japanese: 

訓令式 (くんれいしき: official kana romanization system)

This refers to Japanese-style romanization of Japanese, as opposed to Hepburn romanization, which prevails in Japan today. With the kunrei system, one romanizes 新聞 as sinbun, whereas it's shimbun with Hepburn.

We have more linguistics words in the next little list, at least in the secondary definitions of 辞令:

辞令 (じれい: (1) notice of personnel change (appointment, dismissal, etc.); (2) wording; choice of language; phraseology)

社交辞令 (しゃこうじれい: polite or diplomatic way of putting things; honeyed words; lip service)

Honeyed words! That sounds very appealing! Oh, wait. The last definition makes me realize that honeyed words are meant to disguise an ugly reality.

Here's a threesome involving good reputations:

令聞 (れいぶん: good reputation; fame)

令望 (れいぼう: good reputation)

令名 (れいめい: good reputation; fame)

In these terms, 令 means "good" or "beautiful."

I also found many terms involving family relationships, including two sets of homonyms: 

令姉 (れいし: your elder sister)

令嗣 (れいし: your (his) heir)

令兄 (れいけい: your elder brother)

令閨  (れいけい: your wife; his wife; Mrs.)

令堂 (れいどう: home; mother)

As Kapur points out, the old meaning of 令 (that is, "splendid") survives in modern Japanese in honorific usages such as these.

In fact, as I've just learned, if 令 is the first kanji in a compound, the character almost always means "good" or "beautiful." If 令 comes later in a compound, that kanji tends to mean "command" or "order." What a handy algorithm!

On 和

When I turned to 和, I found that Henshall's etymology reinforces the idea that this kanji is ultimately about softness. He says it combines a "rice plant" on the left with "mouth/say" on the right. As the "rice plant was often a symbol of pliancy and softness," he notes, it lends those connotations here, making 和 mean "pliant in speech," which is to say "accommodating" and "harmonious." That eventually came to mean "peaceful."

As I found from searching dictionaries, this kanji can carry several readings and meanings when it stands alone:

和 (わ: (1) sum (in math); (2) harmony; peace; (3) Japanese-style)

和 (なぎ: calm; lull)

和 (やわ: poorly built; weak; insubstantial)

That last term is certainly a surprise! 

I should say that 和 (わ) means "Japanese-style" only when functioning as a prefix, so technically the kanji isn't alone in such cases.

We have more singletons in these verbs and adjectives, this time followed by okurigana: 

和らぐ (やわらぐ: to soften, calm down, be mitigated)

和む (なごむ: to be softened, become lukewarm)

和やか (なごやか: peaceful, mild, gentle)

These six terms already yield plenty of evidence of the three main meanings of 和—"harmony; to soften; Japan"—but I examined some compounds just to see everything.

Here we have 和 as "harmony":

調和 (ちょうわ: harmony, accord, agreement, symmetry)

平和 (へいわ: peace, harmony)

The definitions come across as entirely pleasant, but Kapur sees more deeply, saying this: "A much beloved word among Abe and his fellow conservatives is 'chōwa' (調和), social harmony and consensus, which they like to believe prevailed in Japan before defeat in World War II and the US Occupation introduced decadent western values of individualism and materialism." Oh, dear.

The next verb gives us another take on "to soften":

緩和する (かんわする: to ease, relieve, alleviate)

Finally, 和 represents "Japan" in these important terms:

和服 (わふく: Japanese clothing)

和歌 (わか: Japanese poem)

和英 (わえい: Japanese-English)

和語 (わご: native Japanese word)

大和 (やまと: old name for Japan)

The first three terms feel neutral, and the fourth makes me happy, as I've spent lots of time writing about 和語 as opposed to 漢語 (かんご: Japanese words of Chinese origin). 

But 大和 has quite a bit of baggage. Here's what I said in essay 1280 on 魂 (soul, spirit) about the spinoff 大和魂 (やまとだましい: the Japanese spirit):

This word dates back to the Heian era (794–1185). In The Inland Sea, Donald Richie used the term in romaji. Calling World War II a “near-religious exercise of yamato-damashii,” he noted that the wartime Japanese “banned all natural frivolity, including, in spirit if not in letter, sexual intercourse” (p. 177). He therefore equated 大和魂 with an austerity, at least one demanded by the circumstances. One could interpret this more broadly to mean that the Japanese spirit rises to the occasion, however tough the situation might be, and gives its all.

Putting the Two Halves of 令和 Together

Even before the 大和 discussion, we certainly saw that 和 is provocative for some because of 昭和 history. But overall 令 is the much harsher kanji, making 令和 an odd combination of hard and soft. The first is as brutally sharp as a sword and the second is actually capable of meaning "soft." No wonder people don't know quite what to make of this name! 

I come back to the as-yet-unmet dog analogy, and I can't help thinking that it would be far easier to come up with a suitable name once one has seen a few whiskers and tail wags or bared teeth and sharp claws. I am hoping for whiskers and wags, but we shall see!

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