How Japan’s new imperial era broke the internet in a very tiny way

Emperor Akihito of Japan is abdicating and passing the office to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and as part of the transition comes a new gengo, or era name: “Reiwa.” It’s loaded with meaning and subtext, but because of the way text is sent and displayed over the internet, the name can’t actually be displayed in a certain official way. Unicode has issued an update making it possible, but for now there’s just no character for Reiwa. It’s a strange little problem that will be fixed soon, but illustrates how the systems we rely on aren’t perfect.

Now, to be clear, you can definitely type out the kanji for it, 令和, and that’s totally fine (though there are some technical hiccups there too). But gengo get combined single characters for certain situations and contexts. For comparison, the current (soon to be former) era, Heisei, can be written 平成 but has a combined-character name as well: ㍻. Sure, it’s just the two pieces squished together, but they’re squished together in an important, official way.

Without getting too deep into the history or politics of Japanese imperium, the country has a sort of internal calendar with eras corresponding to the (largely symbolic) rule of a given emperor. It’s a big deal, used in official documents and such, but also shorthand for referring to an era — “oh, that was in Heisei year 10” or the like, the way we might say, “the last year of the Clinton presidency.” I’m probably doing it wrong, but you get the idea.

The interesting part about this practice — well, there are many interesting parts, but the most interesting for our purposes today — is that these gengo are all essentially invented from scratch. And because of the nature of how the Japanese language is written, that means there’s essentially no way to display the name properly online!

Unicode is basically a big (around 120,000 entries long) set of codes that correspond to the actual letters and images we want to type or send. So when I write “Hey! 🙋” you see the same thing on your end that I see on my end. But how can there be a symbol for something that’s kept secret until its official debut, and which is assembled from parts of other Japanese words into a single brand-new character? It’s a bit like announcing they were adding a new letter to the alphabet.

This is the first time an era change has occurred in the modern computing era, so there isn’t really any precedent, as the organization noted last year in anticipation of the event. The only thing Unicode is really able to do is reserve the space for the incoming character and give it a placeholder graphic showing its code: ㋿. (What you see in the box, assuming you view this before the character is added, is “32FF,” part of the code.)

In a way, that’s all Unicode needs to do; it’s now up to designers to put together the actual character as it will be displayed in their font. And those updates will have to go out to servers and devices individually. But that can’t be done instantly, of course — and in the meantime any headline online with the new name in it by definition can’t show it! It’s a fascinating little quandary.

As for the name itself, it has produced some tumult as people argue over the linguistic and literary subtext; the intricacies of the Japanese script and the history of the syllables and how they are represented make a variety of interpretations possible, with different political and philosophical connotations. Nick Kapur’s breakdown is the best I’ve seen, getting to the heart of what makes Reiwa uniquely difficult to translate yet setting out the meanings clearly.

It’s a unique challenge in many ways and one for which the internet is uniquely unsuited. Soon we’ll have the character and any slight inconvenience created by the delay between announcement and the ability to properly display it will be forgotten, but it’s always interesting when the world throws a curveball at systems we take for granted.

Hopefully we’ll have everything tidied up by the time the Reiwa era officially begins on May 1.