Japanese Era Names.

Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), and I thought this was interesting enough to share:

As a further step in cementing the ties between the emperor and his people, the emperor’s birthday was proclaimed a national holiday, the Feast of Tenchō [天長節]. Observance of the emperor’s birthday as a holiday had begun as far back as 775, but the custom had long since fallen into abeyance. Its revival at this time was thus another instance of the intention to restore ancient practices.

On October 23 [1868] it was announced that the nengō [年号] had been changed from the fourth year of Keiō to the first year of Meiji and that henceforth there would be only one nengō for an entire reign. The name Meiji was derived from a passage in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination: “The sage, facing south, listens to the world; facing the light, he governs.” The day before the new nengō was announced, the emperor himself had visited the sanctuary (naishidokoro [内侍所 ‘inner samurai place’]) where he drew lots to determine the new nengō from among several names submitted by scholars. Although he probably did not realize it at the time, the emperor had also chosen the name by which posterity would know him; earlier emperors were known by a place-name from the site of their residence or (as was true of Meiji’s father and grandfather) by a posthumously chosen title. The name Meiji [明治], interpreted as meaning “enlightened rule,” came to seem an accurate description of his reign. Names like those of his father and grandfather, auspicious though they were, would have been less appropriate to the era.

It turns out that KDoore explained the basic fact in a 2009 comment, but I had of course forgotten, and this has more detail. I’m curious, however, about how exactly Meiji [明治] is derived from the I Ching; it’s apparently from the Shuogua (an appendix explaining the trigrams), and the passage is translated here as “The sages faced south when they listened to the world (that is, held court), they turned towards the brightness and ruled.” Is “enlightened rule” from “turned towards the brightness and ruled”? I want context!


  1. The first kanji in the word is the sun and moon together which ISTR from my very limited list of known kanji does indeed mean bright…

  2. Yes, I know what the kanji mean, but I want to know how you get from the I Ching to the era name.

  3. The phrase in question is 嚮明而治, which, character by character, is something like “faced / brightness / and / ruled”. The Hanyu da cidian says 嚮明 means “before daybreak”, so the phrase may actually be describing a ruler who begins his day early. In any case, Meiji is taken from the second and fourth characters, and 明 naturally becomes an adjective for 治 due to the analytic nature of Classical Chinese.

    (I’m a fairly new reader, and have been really enjoying the blog!)

  4. Thanks very much, that’s exactly what I wanted to know!

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia has an article on each nengō (at least back beyond the beginning of the 19th century), which usually but not always gives an English translation of the “meaning” and also gives an explanation of the derivation of the name. These are the dozen (in reverse chronological order) that preceded Meiji, many of which were quite short, with multiple eras per emperor (the oldest given here , commencing in A.D. 1789, was partway through the reign of the fellow who was third before the Meiji emperor). No doubt there are other sources out there that could fill in the blanks.

    Keiō (“Jubilant Answer”) – unexplained
    Genji (“Original Rule”) – “from the I Ching”
    Bunkyū (“Literate Story”) – unexplained
    Man’en (??) – “from a hortatory aphorism to be found in The Book of the Later Han”
    Ansei (“Tranquil Government”) – “from a hortatory aphorism”
    Kaei (“Eternal Felicity”) – “from an aphorism in the Book of Song”
    Kōka (“Becoming Wide or Vast”) – unexplained
    Tenpō (“Heavenly Imperial Protection”) – “from an hortatory aphorism”
    Bunsei (??) – “from an aphorism attributed to the ancient Chinese Emperor, Great Shun”
    Bunka (“Culture” or “Civilization”) – unexplained
    Kyōwa (??) – “from an hortatory aphorism”
    Kansei (“Tolerant Government” or “Broad-minded Government”) – unexplained

  6. If you call those explanations. I fear “from a hortatory aphorism” is completely useless to anyone seeking knowledge.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, sometimes they give the aphorism even if they don’t give its source. So e.g. the article on Tenpō asserts that the ‘new era name was created from an hortatory aphorism: “Respect and worship the Ways of heaven. Eternally keep the Mandate of Heaven” (欽崇天道、永保天命).’ My interest was more in noting one predecessor allegedly also derived from the I Ching and giving a sense of the other named-text sources. Obviously a given hortatory aphorism may have cultural numinosity even if it is not claimed to be from an independently-numinous source text.

  8. @J.W. Brewer: It’s weird to hear the Japanese referencing the Mandate of Heaven. They believed that the emperors had a divine mandate from Amaterasu, of course, but that’s not really what made the Chinese notion of the Mandate of Heaven interesting.

  9. a given hortatory aphorism may have cultural numinosity even if it is not claimed to be from an independently-numinous source text

    The aphorism 欽崇天道、永保天命 is from the 尚書 Book of Documents. The phrase is found at the very end of this chapter here, the announcement of 仲虺 Zhong Hui (text in PRC simplified characters with an old translation of Legge).

  10. Great, thanks for that!

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett, the bureaucrats who helped select the name for the Tenpō era may have been the product of the reforms of the Kansei era that purported to make a certain school of neo-Confucianism the Only Official Ideology of the late-Edo regime. Which might have made them want to harmonize indigenous traditions with these Sinitic concepts. The rival Kokugaku ideologues (who favored restoring the supposed pristine purity of distinctively Japanese thought and culture and accordingly downgrading Chinese imports) may have had more influence on what was emphasized in the Meiji era and thereafter.

  12. There is an amusing anecdote about the era name Tenpō 天保 — it had been under consideration as a possible era name during the late Heian period, but it was rejected because the Minister of the Left, Fujiwara no Yorinaga, pointed out that the kanji could be decomposed into the inauspicious 一大人只十 (“a great person [has] only ten [years to live / faithful followers, etc.]”).

    henceforth there would be only one nengō for an entire reign.

    This had been the practice in China since the beginning of the Ming dynasty (with the sole exception of the Ming emperor Yingzong, who adopted a new era name when he returned to the throne after being captured by the Mongols).

  13. Was the scholarly Yorinaga warned off Tenpō by the fate of Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi? The emperor Wenxuan began his reign by proclaiming the era Tiānbǎo 天保 (that is, in Japanese pronunciation, Tenpō). He died in the tenth year of a reign (550–559) marred by drunkenness and cruelty… 一大人只十.

    After Yorinaga vetoed Tenpō, the era was evetually named Kyūju 久壽 (late 1154 – mid 1156). The Japanese Wikipedia reports that Kyūju was taken from 其業在於全身久壽, a phrase found in the fifth section of the eighth chapter of the “Inner Chapters” of the Baopuzi 抱樸子 and relating to the conduct of a xiān 仙 “immortal, hermit sage who has attained superhuman powers”. In his 1966 translation of the Baopuzi, James Ware renders the phrase “His occupation consists in keeping his person whole and prolonging his allotment of life”. And of course, less than a year after the proclamation of this auspicious era name, the reigning emperor Konoe died, only 17 years old. So much for the replacement name!

    And in the end, when the Tenpō era was proclaimed in Japan in late 1830, it turned out to be a time of famine and political unrest… 一大人只十 “For one ruler, only ten subjects”.

  14. Typo: should be 天保 tiānbǎo. I put the tone mark in the wrong place.

  15. Fixed!

  16. No one spoke MSM in the 6th century, so tiānbǎo as a romanized spelling seems as anachronistic as e.g. referring to an ancient Roman politician as Giulio Cesare. Admittedly a reconstruction like “/tʰen/-/pɑuX/” is a bit unaesthetic.

  17. referring to an ancient Roman politician as Giulio Cesare.

    As do the Italians.

  18. And we refer to him as /ˈdʒʊwliəs ˈsizər/, which isn’t any better.

  19. Was the scholarly Yorinaga warned off Tenpō by the fate of Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi?
    I haven’t seen the original sources for the anecdote, so I’m not sure about that. There is a claim floating around the Chinese-language internet that Emperor Wenxuan himself pointed out the inauspicious way of decomposing the characters, but it doesn’t seem to appear in the dynastic history of the Northern Qi. I suspect it may have been introduced by the scriptwriters of a Chinese historical drama who heard the Japanese anecdote and thought it was too good not to include in their own story.

  20. No one spoke MSM in the 6th century, so tiānbǎo as a romanized spelling seems anachronistic

    Indeed, there was no mainstream media in the 6C either.

    Pinyin is the convention, and if you used reconstructed pronunciations you’d have to keep changing them. See our discussion at Teaching Classical Chinese Without Prerequisites. I still like the idea of DBP’s Neutral Orthography to romanize the bits of Classical Chinese in hifalutin Mandarin, where pinyin obviously doesn’t cut it.

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