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Heisei Becomes History: Critical Reflections on a Period and Periodization (2019- )


Lead Investigator: Noriko Murai (03-3238-4026 /



Tina Burrett (

Michio Hayashi (

Shion Kono (

Koichi Nakano (

Sven Saaler (

David Slater (

Matthew Strecher (


Goals of Project:

Akihito’s abdication on April 30, 2019 brought the imperial reign era 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 was unprecedented in the history of modern Japan and marked a clear separation of the individual person of the emperor from the institution he served. This splitting that the abdication symbolized was characteristic of his reign in a number of different ways. On the one hand, the public actions and words of the Heisei emperor (and the empress) in excess of obligations that his position constitutionally demanded, such as visits to areas afflicted by natural disasters within the nation, or to former battle sites in the Pacific, allowed the public to perceive his distinct personality and even 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, for instance, 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 collaborative research unit seeks to reflect on the ambivalent status and fluctuating associations that have clustered around the imperial reign name Heisei, and to consider the use of the reign name year-counting system more generally in the twentieth-first century. To what extent is it useful to enframe the past three decades of Japan as “Heisei”? What kinds of subjects and perspectives would that enframing bring out to visibility (or conceal)? While a number of issues have already been identified and discussed as characteristic of contemporary Japan, it remains to be examined how and to what extent our understanding of such tendencies, phenomena, and experiences may be heightened (or obscured), if approached in conscious relation to the idea of Heisei. It is not self- evident what the collective imaginary of the Heisei era designation will be. Just as we have witnessed in recent years a sharp shift in the public imagination of “Shōwa” from a warning/scar from the recent “dark” past (i.e., the Asia-Pacific War) to an object of nostalgia in idealizing the “bright” times of postwar national prosperity, the collective imagination of “Heisei” will inevitably be fluid and will emerge from its perceived distinction from how the new “Reiwa” era will be defined.

Since all those who research and teach about Japan (or live in Japan) are implicated in the use of gengō and nengō, whether one is conscious or not, the end of “Heisei” (and the start of “Reiwa”) provides us with a unique and timely opportunity to come together on a common topic and to engage in multi- and inter-disciplinary discussions across the humanities and the social sciences. Critical reflections will come from a wide range of disciplines including history, art history, literature, religion, anthropology, and political science.





Japan in the Heisei Era (1989–2019) :Multidisciplinary Perspectives

ISBN 9780367221676

Published February 22, 2022 by Routledge

386 Pages 56 B/W Illustrations


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