Reiwa – an era of innovation?

At May 1, Japan entered the new era of “Reiwa” as Emperor Naruhito acceded to the throne. In English, Reiwa can be translated as “beautiful harmony”, but the name can be interpreted in several ways. For the first time the new era name has been taken from classical Japanese literature, rather than Chinese. The name was adopted from the anthology Manyoshu, which is the oldest collection of classical Japanese poetry. It dates back to year 759 and is said to symbolize Japan’s rich culture and long history of traditions. At the announcement of the new era name, one month ahead of the start of the new era, Prime Minister Abe explained Reiwa as “a culture born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully”.

Akihito, who will now be known as Heisei Emperor, is the first Japanese monarch in 200 years to abdicate, and the new era is celebrated in joy, rather than sorrow as when an emperor passes away. The Heisei era began in 1989, when Akihito succeeded his late father, Emperor Hirohito, after the Showa era. The Showa era ranged between 1926-1989, a period with Sino-Japanese war, World War II, as well as the transformation into a democracy and the post-war Japanese economic miracle.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during the announcement of Reiwa. Photo: Uichiro Kasai
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during the announcement of Reiwa. Photo: Uichiro Kasai

Looking back

The era names today align with the rule of the emperors, however, in the past, the era name was changed to mark the occasion of a historical moment. An emperor could change the name to foster a feeling of renewal, for instance after a disaster or crisis. Such change was last made with the Meiji era in 1868 when Japan opened up to the outside world, which also was the time when Sweden and Japan established diplomatic relations.

The Heisei era, which in English can be translated as “achieving peace”, was the first era in modern time where Japan was not involved in any war and it will be remembered as a period of peace. However, Japan faced other challenges as the bubble economy that came to an end and the relations with China being impaired. Furthermore, many people associate the period with disastrous events such as the terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway and the Kobe earthquake in 1995, and the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011. During this period, also a demographic change took up speed.

From a science and technology point of view the Heisei era brought new innovations and discoveries such as the blue LED light, android robots and induced pluripotent stem cells. In the early 1990s, the blue LED light was invented by the Japanese scientists Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura. The discovery was important for the development of energy-efficient mobile, computer and TV screens, as well as power-saving lightbulbs. The three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014 for this discovery.

Another important progress during the Heisei era was the development of the android robot. In 2003, the first all-talking, blinking, and breathing, human-like robot was developed by researchers at the Intelligent Robotics Lab at Osaka University. Furthermore, Japan has made a great progress in the use of pluripotent stem cells. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his co-workers showed that it was possible to convert adult cells into pluripotent stem cells, so called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). This opened up for an unlimited source of human cells for therapeutic purposes. The discovery was awarded with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012.

The Heisei era also brought new policy frameworks and policy planning to promote science and technology.  In 1995, Japan enacted the “Basic Law on Science and Technology”. Since then, the government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy has developed a 5-year Science and Technology Basic Plan to set the direction of science and technology innovation policies. Currently, the fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan is in effect, focusing on Society 5.0, a human centred approach to transformative technologies as Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.

The era to come

Japan is one of the countries investing the highest share of GDP in R&D in the world. Yet, during the Heisei era, the number of Japanese companies among the top 20 in market value dropped from fourteen to zero, much due to the burst of the bubble economy and the sub-sequent increased international competition. Further, with low birth-rates and an ageing population, 28 percent of the population is today aged 65 or older. The working age population has rapidly declined and is currently below 60 percent. This demographic change constitutes a significant societal challenge for Japan, and measures to mitigate is of high priority for the new era. More liberal immigration regulation for foreign workers is underway, but there is also a substantial need for new solutions and technologies.

Currently, Japan is increasing its focus towards stimulating market-creating and disruptive innovations, both to tackle societal challenges and to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs and revitalise existing companies. A Moonshot programme is now being launched for radical ideas, universities are to be reformed, and initiatives to implement artificial intelligence broadly are underway. Japan plans to showcase new technology and innovations at Tokyo 2020 Olympics and at the Osaka World Expo 2025, as well as being a leading nation in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals through science and innovation.

At present the sixth Science and Technology Basic Plan is beginning to be formulated, and will most likely include significant focus on innovation and further implementation towards Society 5.0. A strong innovation system requires a wide range of components, i.e. from top-level knowledge and free-thinking, to incentives and adequate support systems. Ideas, collaboration and co-creation are vital in innovation processes, and in this context the new era Reiwa, described as “a culture born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully”, fits well with Japan’s need for promoting innovation. In the spirit of Reiwa, let’s co-create innovations in international collaboration!