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  New era, new year and new money

It was the best sakura viewing season in recent years: more than one week of constant warm weather to extend the fleeting moment of beauty. So typically then, it was back to winter and rain, even snow in city outskirts, then warm again. Spring in Japan always come like drunkard's stagger back home from pub: three steps forward, one back, then forward again.

While enjoying sakura, we also got to know that the new Imperial era that starts May 1 will be Reiwa. The nation thinks it's something exciting, yet there were also spoilers, many foreign, who questioned the "rei" part: what does it mean, who chose it and why?


There were reasons to wonder the choice of "rei". It's a new kanji in Imperial names - never used in 247 earlier names - even if combined with the old staple "wa" for peace or harmony. Alledgely, Reiwa was also latecomer into the list of alternatives selected by academians from ancient writings and reviewed by a layman council before final selection by the Cabinet. From what was proposed, it was no surprise that Abe-san picked Reiwa that, in its original poem source, stands for "Beautiful Harmony", pretty close to his old motto Beautiful Japan ("Utsukushi Nippon"). Those, who claim Abe is a rightist, who wants to lead Japan back to fascist militarism, said "rei" can be read instead as "order" so the new name would be "Ordered Harmony". They also claimed that Abe-san chose the word to reflect his defiance against China: it is from a classic Japanese poem and not from a Chinese poem like other proposals and all the previous picks have been past 1400 years. Why to break tradition?

In Aoyama View, the meaning comes clear from the poem that talks about spring and peach flowers starting to bloom in February after long, hard winter, a new season of hope. As for the source, the question should be turned around: why Japanese names should be picked from Chinese literature? High time to go domestic, I would say. Besides, the relations with China are rapidly improving now - why PM would risk something he has been working for past six years?

They say that Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine close to Fukuoka, where the poem was allegedly written during a hanami party around 750, will see record amount of visitors following the choice. It's a beautiful place and combines a national heritage museum, the only one outside Tokyo. A few years back was there for a unique exhibition of old "netsuke" decorations from the biggest private collection outside Japan that was surprisingly held by an old couple in Tampere, Finland. Talk about strange connections between our two countries so far away from each other in many ways!

As for the debate of the "rei" meaning, think Canon Institute's always reasonable Kuni Miyake summed it up pretty well in four points: 1) Kanji are notoriously ambigious - for 100 Japanese readers "rei" can have 100 different meanings, 2) interpretation of "rei" as "order" sounds elementary school level, 3) if the name sounds good, that's enough for most people, no deep analysis is needed, and 4) this is the first time in modern history that the new period name comes with perfect joy - there's no sadness from incumbent death to dampen it down - so let people enjoy it, don't try spoil their happiness.


Japanese people are masters in worrying even without outside help and can see black linings even in the clearest of skies. Take the Golden Week around the new Imperial era start May 1: it's not a few people who complain that the special celebratory 10 day holiday that government has declared - no work day in-between this time - is not a blessing, but a problem that can make life miserable and even lead to national catastrophy.

For those, whose lives revolve around their work, even a normal GW provides a challenge what to do. All overseas flights have been booked up long ahead, roads, rails and planes will be extra congested and resort hotels charge double or triple. There's simply nothing to do but sit at home and watch TV and this time theres is not even one work day in-between to escape to office.

Nationally, some financial experts tell us, there's a risk that Tokyo stock market can implode due to such long closure without possibility to ventilate the global changes. Even the world markets, no matter if stocks or currency, can run out of track without Japanese investors' pacifying presence, they say. As an example they quote the day Tokyo computers went off by technical problem and JPY rate shot up 10% in just 4 minutes.

Moreover, crime has been rising in connection with the Imperial year change. Lowly tricksters have been calling old people pretending they are from their bank and requesting to set up new a PIN number as "it is needed for the new Reiwa time". Many an old gullible person has been sadly robbed of his/her life savings.

A fresh survey shows that old people still think in terms of Imperial years even if majority of the nation use Western years or combination of both. Imperial years are mainly used in official documents and to describe longer periods that shape up entire lives. Like your birthyear: today's young generation are all "Heisei children" whereas middle-aged are Showa-born. If you are super senior you might be a Taisho-man and if over 107 year old, you are born in Meiji time that started 1868.


Notwithstanding the interest in the new Imperial period, for all organizations the new year and new life started on April 1. It was start of new school year with little first graders marching to school in their yellow hats with big "randoseru" rucksacks and start of new business year with thousands of freshmen and women around the town in their uniform black suits. Plenty solemn ceremonies for both in schools and workplaces.

For senior salarymen, every new financial year means new business plans and auditors rushing to check past year's result. In big companies, many managers moved in new positions, some in new countries or cities. Your old business contact was suddenly in a different department or packing his bag for China or possibly promoted to higher positon, all important moves to follow up and celebrate together.

New laws that passed Parliament last year took effect April 1. Child care and public school are now free. New labor law supposedly forbids excessive overwork and demands same salary for same work. New visa law lets in non-professional foreigners to come work here for the first time in history - as long as their job is in one of the 16 specific industries critically short of work force like farming, fishing and construction or hotels, restaurants and nursing care. More than 300,000 are expected to come from various Asian countries whereafer we will have 1,5 million foreigners here. In all likelihood, this is just the beginning of big change.


Shrewd politician that he is, Prime Minister did not miss out on the celebratory mood. Surveys show his popularity took a big jump up, even over 50% according to one poll, and Abe-san built it further by announcing that we will have new banknotes with new national heros pictured in. It did not matter to him that the new notes will come out only in 2024 following BOJ's regular 20 year renewal schedule. It didn't matter either that celebrating new bank notes goes fundamentally against government's own target to reduce Japanese consumers' attraction to cash. A new online payment method called Reiwa would have been more in line with that, critics say.

On the 10,000 yen note we will have a Meiji period businessman instead of a Meiji period academian. A remarkable man he was: Eichi Shibusawa, born to a farmer family in Saitama, was "Father of Japan Capitalism", who introduced modern accounting, modern banks and insurance business here as well as the joint-stock company model. For his new model, he established the Tokyo Stock of Exchange. In total, he established more than 500 companies, some of which are household names still today like Mizuho Bank, Tokyo Gas, Keisei Railway, Imperial Hotel and Sapporo Brewery. He also participated in founding many schools, hospitals, universities and charity organizations including Japan Red Cross. It's difficult to think of such overly active pioneer with equally impressive track record in any other country.

On JPY 5000 note we will have a female face, Umeko Tsuda, another Meiji period pioneer - for women's education. She was educated herself from age of six in USA including famous universities like Bryn Mawr and Georgetown as well as Oxford in England, something very rare at time. Upon return to Japan, she became home teacher for Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito's children, then lecturer in well-known schools. In 1900, she established Women's Institute for English Studies (Joshi Eigaku Juku), forerunner of today's Tsuda University, a highly rated school for women only. Its alumni include well-known writers and politicians as well as business women like Tomoko Namba, the founder of DeNa, the well-known mobile portal and e-commerce company, owner of Yokohama Baystars baseball club.

With all the talk of women's position and lack of internationalism in Japan today, it's good to know there was somebody highly advanced and international already 120 years ago.


Finland Parliament election last week shuffled the power pack of parties full scale; the center-right ruling parties were overtaken from both left and right. Support for Prime Minister's Center Party dropped badly and Conservatives took a step back, too. Labor (Social Democrats) and far-righ True Finns are now the two biggest parties and Greens made a big surge ahead, too. It must be a big dilemma what kind of coalition these parties can agree between themselves to make majority - some say it will take until June. That would be fast in recent multiparty country standards: it took Sweden and Germany over 100 days, Netherlands over 200 days to work out a new government after their elections. It would be important for Finland to get its new team on field by July 1 when the country becomes EU chairman.

What's good is that such fresh change and the 74% voting rate both stand as proof that democracy lives strong in Finland. As well, the share of women among new MP's is almost 50% - in Green party full 90%!

Such figures make quite a difference to the 48% voting rate and 10% share of seats for women in the nationwide community election here two weeks ago. In the ruling party, whose leader likes to pose as Japan's No.1 promoter of equality, share of elected female assembly members is now 3,5%.

Let's see what will be the outcome from the second round on Sunday, then Upper House election in July.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, April 22, 2019  

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6 February 2019
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28 January 2019
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16 January 2019
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19 December 2018
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2 October 2018
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17 September 2018
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26 April 2018
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17 April 2018
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6 April 2018
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26 March 2018
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14 February 2018
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4 February 2018
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23 January 2018
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12 January 2018
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About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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