May 1, 2019 – Roger W. Lowther
May 1st marks Crown Prince Naruhito’s ascension to the Japanese throne to become the 126th emperor of the world’s oldest monarchy and the start of 令和 (“Reiwa”). The name for this new Reiwa era was announced on April 1st.
The term Reiwa comes from Japan’s oldest collection of poetry, dating from the eighth century, called the Manyōshū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”). At this point in the collection, a group of artists gather at the Governor-General’s house for a party after a long hard winter. They see plum blossoms flowering, the first sign of coming spring, and write poems of hope for the future. “With the heavens as a parasol and the earth as a mat . . . the guests sat knee to knee to express their deepest emotions in the garden of letters.” Their time is described this way:
It was in new spring, in an auspicious (令 “rei”) month,
When the air was clear and the wind a gentle (和 “wa”) breeze.
Plum flowers blossomed a beauty’s charming white
And the fragrance of the orchids was their sweet perfume.
The character 令 (rei) means “auspicious” or “beautiful.” The character 和 (wa) means “gentle” or “harmonious.” When put together, 令和 (reiwa) means “beautiful harmony.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described it as representing “a culture being born and nurtured by the beauty of people coming together.”
To understand the deeper significance of this word, we need to look at the etymology of rei.
The above picture shows how the character rei changed over time. Originally, it showed a person kneeling under a roof waiting for a command from their god or king. It represented 命令 (“command” or “order”).
As a Christian, Reiwa makes me think of the beautiful harmony ordained by God.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes. (Psalm 19:7-8)
The commands of the Lord are “perfect,” “trustworthy,” “right,” and “radiant.” Everything God ordains is the best and most beautiful it can be. When people look to God for their commands, beautiful harmony is the result. As we enter this era of Reiwa, may we indeed be a people who glorify God by moving in “gentle harmony” with him and with each other.
I trust in you, Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands. (Psalm 31:14-15)
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