Japan has been using a system of “era names” continuously since the 8th century. Each era name “is said to represent an ideal of an era and in principle consists of two auspicious kanji, including hei (peace), ei (eternal), ten (heaven) and an (safety).”
In modern times, each era name has corresponded to the rule of a single emperor. Here are the four most recent era names and their meanings:
- Meiji (1868-1912) – “enlightened rule”
- Taisho (1912-1926) – “great righteousness”
- Showa (1926-1989) – “radiant peace”
- Heisei (1989-) – “peace everywhere”
The current emperor, 83-year-old Akihito, hinted last summer that he wanted to step down from the throne. (He would be succeeded by his son, Prince Naruhito.)
If he does, Japan will transition to a new era name. And this could have an impact on baby names.
Data released by Japan’s Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company (est. 1881) indicates that during the early Taisho era, the most popular names for baby boys (e.g., Shoichi, Shoji, Shozo) all started with Taisho’s sho character, which means “right” or “just.”
And during the early Showa era, there was strong usage of Showa’s (different) sho character, which means “bright” or “calm.”
These days Japanese parents are less tradition-bound and more influenced by “look and sound,” said a Meiji Yasuda Life spokesperson. But if Japan’s next era name includes an attractive kanji character, who knows — Japanese parents might just start using it and kick off a new baby name trend…
Update, 6/18/2017: On June 10, Japan passed a law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate (within the next three years specifically).
Update, 11/30/2017: Emperor Akihito will abdicate on April 30, 2019.
Update, April 2019: The new era name, Reiwa, was recently revealed. Reiwa is “a very Japanese-sounding name; previous era names have come from Chinese classic literature,” but Reiwa “appears in a poem about plum blossoms from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poems.” (Source)