Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30th, 2019, bringing the current imperial reign era (nengō) of Heisei to an end after 30 years through his own volition rather than his physical passing. This act of choosing to end one’s reign is unprecedented in the history of modern Japan and marks a clear separation of the individual person of the emperor from the institution he has served. This splitting that the abdication symbolizes has been characteristic of his reign. On the one hand, the public actions and words of the current emperor (and the empress) in excess of obligations that his position constitutionally demands, such as visits to areas afflicted by natural disasters within the nation, or to former battle sites in the Pacific, have allowed the public to perceive his distinct personality and individual determination. On the other hand, in response to globalization and especially digitization, the relevance of imperial nengō as a distinctly “Japanese” time-marking system has been reduced drastically in the past two decades, evidenced by the government’s recent decision to stop using the reign year as the “master” dating system to input data into its computer system.
This roundtable seeks to reflect on the ambivalent status and fluctuating associations that have clustered around the imperial reign name Heisei. Seraphim evaluates the usefulness of “Heisei” vis-à-vis several “post” designations for the historical period since 1989 with respect to major political debates. In the realm of cultural productions, the relevance of the Heisei reign for what has taken place in the past three decades has been far less clear. Tseng nonetheless observes how developments incidental to the emperor become appropriated in retrospect as defining characteristics of a reign era. Murai examines the emergence of such discursive transformation of the present into history in museum practices. Smith evokes the metaphor of suicide in order to conceptualize the end of the Heisei era. Regardless of the discipline, the question of nengō is an issue that continues to concern all those who research and teach about Japan.