Japan announced “Reiwa,” two characters that symbolize auspiciousness and harmony, as the name for a new era under a new emperor.

The name, carefully selected by a panel of experts and the government under strict secrecy, will be used as the basis for Japan’s unique Imperial calendar system after Crown Prince Naruhito takes over the Chrysanthemum Throne from his father on May 1. 

But it also symbolizes Japan’s hopes for the future in turbulent times.

“Our nation is facing up to a big turning point, but there are lots of Japanese values that shouldn’t fade away,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference in explaining the name. 

The year 2019 will become the first year of the new era, or Reiwa 1, used on official documents, coins, driver’s licenses and newspapers, by businesses and in everyday life from May 1 in parallel with the Western, or Gregorian, calendar.

Abe said the new name conveys a meaning that “culture is born and nurtured when people’s hearts empathize with each other beautifully.”

Although many people use Western dates to think about international events, older people especially still use the Japanese system to think about domestic events and their own lives.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveiled the name by holding up a framed white placard showing its two handwritten Chinese characters. The name, he said, is taken from the Man’yoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry dating to the seventh century, in a break from a tradition of using Chinese classics.

“We expect the new era to be widely accepted by the public and deeply rooted in the lives of Japanese people,” Suga said.

The character “rei” usually means an order or command, although in the poem it is used to convey a sense of auspiciousness, while “wa” signifies harmony and peace.

Many of the poems in the Man’yoshu reflect the varieties of seasons and nature, and the poem in which the characters are used refers to plum blossoms in the spring.

“It is a collection which expresses our nation’s rich culture, which we should take pride in, along with our nation’s beautiful nature,” Abe said.

“I want Japan to proudly bloom like plum blossoms,” he explained. “Plum blossoms bloom beautifully after a harsh winter as a sign of the arrival of spring.”

Abe said the anthology included songs not only from nobles but also lower-level officials and farmers, adding that he hoped the name would foster a sense of unity.

The name of an era, or gengo, represents the zeitgeist of a period, just as the Roaring ’20s and Swinging ’60s encapsulated different decades in the United States, and the British remember the Victorian Age as a time of colonial expansion abroad and Protestant morality at home. 

The name is relatively easy to write but not in common use, and, more important, it encapsulates Japan’s hopes for the coming decades.

The abdication of Emperor Akihito marks the end of his era, known as the Heisei, which means “achieving peace.” 

The Heisei lived up to its name as the first period in Japan’s history when military conflict was avoided, and Akihito is revered as a man who did much to restore the image of Japan’s monarchy but also to heal the wounds of war and promote a modern image of Japan as a peace-loving nation. 

But the 30-year Heisei era itself will be remembered less fondly — it began with the bursting of Japan’s real estate bubble and was marked by decades of economic stagnation, when Japan was outpaced by its much larger rival China. 

It also was marked by political corruption scandals and natural disasters, notably the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, as well as growing concerns about the effects of globalization.

Before that, the Showa era, which ran from 1926 to 1989, represents a turbulent period in Japan’s history, including its militarization and eventual defeat in World War II, followed by its recovery and stunning rise to become a global economic power.

Japan hopes the Reiwa era will allow the country to again turn the page and usher in an era of economic and diplomatic revival, beginning with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, just as the 1964 Games here represented Japan’s emergence on the world stage after the ravages of war. 

But it also will be an era in which Japan grapples with an aging and shrinking population, and hopes to tackle labor shortages of workers by encouraging more women to work but also by bringing in more foreign workers.

Emperor Akihito, who is 85 and the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in two centuries, will take the name of his era after his death, and will be known as the Emperor Heisei, just as his father, known in his lifetime as Emperor Hirohito, is now referred to as the Emperor Showa. 

His abdication, made on the grounds of his health and the weight of official duties, gave the government a chance to announce the new era’s name a month before it comes into effect, to allow calendars to be printed and software to be updated.

The concept of Imperial eras comes from the ancient Chinese idea that the emperor rules even time itself. Japan has had 247 era names since the system was instituted in 645, but it was not until the start of the Meiji era in 1868 that a single era name has been used for a single emperor. 

Although widespread, the use of the gengo system is in decline. A recent survey in the Mainichi newspaper found that a third of people mostly use the system, compared to 82 percent in 1975. Although 25 percent preferred the Western calendar, many use the two interchangeably, because both use Western months and dates.