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24 May 2019 19:57
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  •   Home > News > International

    Japan's Emperor Akihito to abdicate, ushering in new era and potentially IT chaos

    With the ascension of a new emperor, Japan is entering an era called "beautiful harmony". But the first change to the country's ancient imperial calendar in the digital age could lead to tech chaos.

    Today marks the end of an era in Japan, with Emperor Akihito abdicating his throne as part of a major celebration for the world's oldest continuous monarchy.

    After 31 years, Emperor Akihito felt the time was right to step down and hand over the important symbolic role to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

    But when the clocks tick over to midnight and a new era begins, there are fears the country's ancient calendar system could trigger technological chaos.

    Each emperor has their own era name— the current period is known as Heisei, which translates to "achieving peace".

    Tomorrow is the start of the Reiwa period, which means "beautiful harmony".

    The Japanese imperial calendar system is based on these eras.

    Many computers in Japan have code which uses that imperial system instead of the Gregorian calendar used almost everywhere else.

    When Emperor Akihito was enthroned in 1989, it brought the 64th year of Showa to a close, and signified the beginning of Hersei 1.

    But computer systems have become far more complicated and widely used since 1989, and no-one quite knows how software will react to the end of the 31st year of Heisei.

    Reiwa 1 could lead to computer malfunctions, system errors, frustration and confusion.

    Microsoft said last year that preparing for the era change was of "high importance".

    "This is a rare event, however it means that most software has not been tested to ensure that it will behave with an additional era," the company warned.

    Microsoft even warned the magnitude of the event may be similar to Y2K.

    In the lead-up to the new millennium, some tech experts feared computers would stop working on January 1, 2000, because most software used two-digit codes to represent the year.

    The thinking was that the year 2000 would be indistinguishable from 1900, and programs used by banks, airports, the power grid and even traffic lights would melt down.

    Microsoft said even though there was a global effort to avert a Y2K catastrophe, many organisations still encountered problems in January 2000.

    Most big businesses and major infrastructure systems in Japan are likely to survive unscathed.

    But a recent survey by the Ministry of Economy found 20 per cent of 3,000 private companies said they did not know if their systems used Japanese eras.

    While Japan is incredibly technologically advanced in many areas, it still has a fondness and strong reliance on fax machines for important business communications.

    When the new era name was announced, that is how international embassies were notified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Official government records including tax documents and marriage registrations all still use the imperial calendar.

    End of an era as modernising Emperor abdicates

    At 6:00pm AEST, Emperor Akihito is expected to formally abdicate, marking the end of weeks of ceremonies, including visits to inform Shinto gods of his plan to step down.

    Tomorrow morning, Crown Prince Naruhito will accede to the throne.

    In honour of the abdication and new emperor, Japan has extended its annual golden week holiday to 10 days, giving locals extra reason to celebrate.

    Emperors have played an important, unifying role for Japan, but it is a position that has changed dramatically in the last 70 years.

    Emperor Hirohito, who ruled during the Showa era, was revered as a god-like figure.

    "One of his functions was to chair important meetings of the generals and admirals and when he was seen in public, people were not supposed to look at him directly," Michael Watson from Meiji Gakuin University said.

    "People were expected to worship the emperor and that changed completely after the second World War."

    After 1945, the role was redefined as a "symbol of the state and unity of the people", and was stripped of any political power.

    But Emperor Hirohito stayed on to maintain a sense of unity for the nation after the war.

    When he died in 1989, his son Emperor Akihito's tone and approach to the public was vastly different.

    "[Emperor Akihito would be] kneeling down and talking to victims who were displaced after the [Fukushima] tsunami or who suffered radiation sickness," Professor Watson said.

    "It's a bit like in England with Princess Diana going to the AIDS hospitals. It had the same symbolic importance for people that they are willing to do this."

    Unlike the British monarchy which dates back to the 6th century and the Chinese imperial dynasties which date back to around 1500BC, Japan's system is believed to be the oldest continuous hereditary system.

    On the streets of Sugamo — a district in Tokyo famous for catering to Japan's ever-increasing number of elderly residents — there was great fondness for Emperor Akihito.

    Being the same age as the abdicating Emperor, Chikara Tanabe was grateful for Emperor Akihito's service.

    "I think his job was tough. I wouldn't be able to do it. He could have abdicated when he was 80," she said.

    Mioko Sekiguchi, 96, has lived through two imperial eras and is about to witness the dawning of a third.

    "When I look back, it was a tumultuous time when I was a child during the Showa era. I felt the Heisei era was a peaceful time. "

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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