The succinct art of Purpose and Ethos -Japan’s new era, ‘Reiwa’: “Order and harmony”

A large part of our work at Belonging Space is pinning down a simple statement of Purpose and Values with clients. Defining the ethos at the heart of belonging is a tough challenge – whether for a new start-up, or an established institution, or a whole nation.

How to provide focus for a new vision in times of change, yet stay true to heritage? How to gather together so many perceptions and manifestations, voices and members… condense them in a simple statement, that can be unpacked into many interpretations? All relevant to the big goals and the everyday challenges?

Inspiration this morning in news from Japan, with the name for the new era beginning on 1 May, when Crown Prince Naruhito becomes Emperor.

The answer is revealed in Tokyo. Japan’s new era will be called ‘Reiwa’: “Order and harmony”

With Japan’s art of the succinct , these two kanji characters sum up the spirit of an age that is yet to begin. BBC News reports “Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the highly anticipated name by holding up a board with the characters handwritten on it.”

Each Japanese emperor’s reign, or “gengo”, is given a name which is then used alongside the Western calendar to mark the years. The country’s current era, ‘Heisei’ or ‘Achieving Peace’, will end with Emperor Akihito’s historic abdication.

What does it all mean?

The term for the new era is made up of the two characters Rei and Wa, the first meaning “order” (or “good fortune”), and the second “harmony” (or “peace”).

The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, addressed the nation and said the government chose the kanji characters because they signify
“a culture being born and nurtured by people’s hearts coming together beautifully.”

As Mr Abe announced, it is for the first time taken from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry, instead of a Chinese one. The Manyoshu symbolises Japan’s “profound public culture and long tradition”, he said.

This is a central moment of national identity: naming a new gengo, imbuing a spirit of an age, and bestowing an ethos for a new Emperor.

But is there also a hint to Japanese nationalism? One twitter commentator senses “A whiff of patriotism here?”

Another interpretation has a more outward reach: the poem from which they are taken describes an ume Japanese apricot flower in full bloom in early spring after surviving a cold winter. Perhaps this brings some optimism for Japan and also for the world?

Mr Abe managed to pull both threads together “Our nation is facing up to a big turning point, but there are lots of Japanese values that shouldn’t fade away.”

Spirit of an era, marking time

The last time Japan changed eras was in 1989 when the ‘Heisei’ era began with Emperor Akihito’s reign. It is more than a poetic formality: it is a boundary and a measure. The era system is widely used to mark time. People, businesses and institutions reset their calendars, on paper and in computer systems. Many people simply use Western months alongside the ‘Gengo’ calendar.

The process of naming is long, deeply considered, with a selection of options drawn up by a panel of scholars and experts. The final name is chosen, after much discussed, by the cabinet. And this time was kept top secret.

Getting everybody behind the Ethos

As many weary CEO’s and Comms Directors will tell you, it’s one thing to come up with a statement of Purpose and Ethos, quite another to get everybody to follow it.

“I hope the new era name will take root among the public and be widely accepted by the people,” Mr Abe said.

Often the challenge for business is showing relevance to team members. Mr Abe pointed out that “Manyoshu,” which was compiled more than 1,200 years ago, contained poems by people of various social status, including emperors, noblemen and noblewomen, warriors and ordinary farmers.

And a commercial focus?

It’s not all inward reflection, The Japan Times reports companies racing to seize business opportunities as new era name was unveiled. New desk calendars, website headers and government documents are being designed in earnest. But tradition, in the form of sake, may well be the race-winner:

“Just 2 minutes and 27 seconds after the televised announcement of the era name, a precision parts manufacturer in Hiroshima Prefecture began accepting orders on its homepage for tin sake cups laser printed with the new era name.”

“Order and harmony” then for Japan, while we in the UK seem to define our age with “Chaos and discord”.

All in all, a highly refined approach – even more concise than a haiku – for anybody looking to sum up purpose and values. But no more insight on the details of how to do it: the process, and the scholars who contribute to it, remain closed in secrecy.

Want to name the spirit of your age? For guidance on how to define your company’s purpose and values, or to buy our toolkit to run the process in-house, drop us a line. 07792 433680

Belonging Space is a culture consultancy helping companies to create a sense of belonging that cultivates their success. See more about our work at and read our views at


(Photo: Screenshot from BBC News)