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I actually like the new 年号 kanji 令和, but I must admit I was surprised by the choice of 令. According to this article in the Japan Times,

The new era name is composed of two Chinese characters — “rei” meaning “good” or “auspicious” but also denoting “command,” and “wa” meaning “harmony” or “peace.”

This seems to give the impression that 'command' is a subordinate meaning, but I I believe I am correct in saying that the dominant meaning of 令 by far is 'command' or 'order', and that the meaning of 'good' or 'auspicious' is a very obscure usage. Most modern words containing 令 denote the 'command' meaning (see here). Yes, I understand that they chose a historical text of key importance, but perhaps someone could enlighten us on what the process might have been on selecting that particular character. I defer to the knowledge of scholars of course, but I am very curious as to how/why they came to agreement on 令. Am I correct in assuming that most Japanese people were not aware of this obscure meaning of 令?

  • At the first sight I thought they creatively recycled 令 that had been used to spell しむ somewhere, because it's so common in the older Japanese writing style. Also, it'd be fun to know that 令 is rarely seen in the beginning of a compound word when it mean "order". – broccoli forest Apr 2 at 17:17
  • Yes it's interesting that 令 is usually the 2nd character in a compound. I never realized that! – kandyman Apr 2 at 18:48
  • Apparently the Chinese too had a hard time with the name: japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/01/national/… – Mathieu Bouville Apr 3 at 6:32
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All the previous nengo are from Chinese Classical Chinese texts - this should set a precedence that, if you aren't familiar with the Chinese Classics, you wouldn't (fully) understand the choice of characters in a nengo.

Even though the source text of the current nengo is from the Japanese Man'yōshū, the choice from this context is also kanbun, and steeped in Classical Chinese vocabulary:

于時、初春「令」月、氣淑風「和」、梅披鏡前之粉、蘭薫珮後之香。

Translation (as given in Wikipedia):

The time is young spring in a fair ("Rei") month, when the air is clear and the wind a gentle ("wa") breeze; when the plum flowers blossom a beauty's charming white, and the fragrance of the orchids is their own sweet perfume.

I personally wouldn't have mentioned the meaning command for「令」; although that is its original meaning and also primary meaning for modern vocabulary, it is not relevant here. Please note the word from the poem is「令月」, which is a vocabulary item from Classical Chinese meaning auspicious month (not "command month", which is nonsensical). From the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial:

《儀禮・士冠禮》:"令月吉日,始加元服,棄爾幼志,順爾成德,壽考惟祺,介爾景福。"

Choose an auspicious month and day, wear a cap (in the coming-of-age capping ceremony), shed yourself of immaturity, and cultivate the noble virtues in adulthood. Longevity and auspiciousness are yours, and may great fortune be bestowed upon you.

  • Interesting! So the meaning of 令 somehow shifted from its Early Japanese/Chinese origin of 'auspicious' to the modern meaning of 'command'? – kandyman Apr 2 at 16:09
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    @kandyman ah, no. The meaning auspicious is probably a phonetic loan or (more unlikely) semantic extension. The original meaning of 令 is command, as given by its character structure: a mouth 亼 speaking to a kneeling person 卩. I clarified the answer a bit. – droooze Apr 2 at 16:11
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    a phonetic loan from what? – kandyman Apr 2 at 18:42
  • @kandyman the Qing Dynasty commentary on the Shuowen, 《說文解字注》, says that the auspicious meaning of 令 is a phonetic loan from 靈 (God, spirit, nimbile, effective > auspicious; Shinjitai: 霊): ...凡令訓善者、靈之假借字也。... – droooze Apr 3 at 1:13
  • Sorry, *nimble. – droooze Apr 3 at 4:30
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As a matter of fact, I did not even recall the meaning of "command/order" when I first saw 令和. 令 struck me as "just another nice-sounding kanji".

Although 玲 and 怜 may be more popular, 令 is not rare at all in person names (e.g., 令二, 令奈). These are so popular and natural in proper nouns that I don't usually bother to care what they mean.

In addition, virtually every adult knows the word 令嬢 (181 instances in BCCWJ). From what I have observed, many people quickly recalled the positive meaning of 令 from this word.

Of course there are always people who hate everything the government does, but the majority of people seem to be welcoming.

  • Yes it is commonly known as being pronounced as 'rei' but I should have specified that I was asking if Japanese people were familiar with the meaning rather than the reading. – kandyman Apr 2 at 16:07
  • So I would say people have vaguely understood that 令 is a good kanji suitable as a name or a compound like 令嬢. There are some kanji which are popular in person names even though their original meanings are almost forgotten (e.g., 伊, 圭, 瑞, 奈). – naruto Apr 2 at 16:26
  • Even if the 漢字 for 令 were taken for its meaning of "command/order" in the word 令和, I would expect the result to be along the lines of "orderly peace" and not "commanding peace," which would be oxymoronic in many senses. However, as others have already pointed out, the meaning that the chosen 漢字 hold is based on an older text. The revolution here is that the selection was made from the Japanese 万葉集 and not from Classical Chinese texts. – psosuna Apr 2 at 17:17
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    @psosuna I disagree with you on that. The word 'order' in English points to at least two different lexical items. One is 'system' and another is 'command'. These are different ideas and although there may be a relationship they are clearly different lexemes.. The dominant meaning of 令 is related to commands, not systems. It points clearly to one of those English lexical items but not another, in my opinion. – kandyman Apr 2 at 18:46
  • @kandyman I'll defer to that interpretation. I decided to look up a dictionary to see what kind of words are formed with 令, and it seems you're right. – psosuna Apr 3 at 15:52

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