By Ben Dooley, Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno
Lost data. Emails that disappear into the ether. Servers that never connect.
All thanks to the ascension of a new emperor to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Japan is scrambling to update software, revise forms and print new calendars before May 1, when the world’s third-largest economy begins a new imperial era. For most of the rest of the world, it will remain the year 2019 when the clock strikes midnight. Across Japan, which relies internally on an ancient calendar that honours a reigning emperor, it will be the first day of the first year of the age of Reiwa.
The new era, christened just weeks ago, will force the country’s sprawling bureaucracy to literally turn back the clock to Year 1. Experts compare it to Y2K, the digital threat in the lead-up to the year 2000, if on a much smaller and less consequential scale.
“The change of the era name will have a huge effect on big companies that have complicated systems,” said Gaku Moriya, deputy director of the information technology innovation division at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI.
Major companies with relatively modern systems will most likely handle the shift with aplomb. Still, the full consequences are not entirely clear, and for many the change will not be cheap. Every government form, including tax returns and marriage registrations, uses the imperial-style calendar, making it impossible for government workers and companies to avoid.
Already the tally is mounting. The city of Nagoya, an industrial centre in central Japan, estimates it alone will spend about $4.3 million preparing for the new era. In the city of Koga, employees preparing for the changeover accidentally erased 1,650 water bills. Scam artists have sent out letters that target older people, telling them to submit personal information to ensure that their bank accounts make the transition, according to national broadcaster NHK.
For those companies that cannot get their paperwork in order by the deadline, METI recommends a distinctly old-school solution: correcting documents with rubber stamps bearing the Japanese characters for the new year.
At a small factory in the outskirts of Tokyo, just three days after the “Reiwa” name was announced, Osamu Takiguchi and a crew of about 20 worked overtime to rush out orders of the distinctly Japanese product.
“We ran out of rubber in the first three days,” said Takiguchi, managing director of Hanko 21, an office supply chain that owns the factory. He said he was considering hiring temporary staff to help with the last-minute rush he expected at the end of the month.
The headaches have prompted a national conversation over whether it is finally time for Japan to move entirely over to the Gregorian calendar. The country uses the Gregorian calendar when dealing with other countries and to coordinate global events, such as the 2020 Olympics. Most people here have also already adopted it in their personal lives.
One lawyer, Jiro Yamane, has even sued the government over the change, arguing that forcing people to measure time by the life of the emperor violates their constitutional right to individual dignity.
“Only Japan exists in this different space and dimension of time,” said Yamane, who is scheduled to argue his case in front of a Tokyo district court at the end of May. “It’s incompatible with international society.
“Why are the Japanese so hung up on it?” he added.
It may just be that Japan has a hard time letting go. The country still depends on fax machines. It is one of the last places in the world where Tower Records, the once iconic music store, has stayed open, still selling CDs.
The new era, to many, is symbolic of a fresh start. Government offices expect couples will rush to register their marriages on the first day of the new era.
The Japanese adopted the imperial calendar from the Chinese in the seventh century, and government agencies have been required to use it since the late 1970s. Other countries in the region, including China itself, have moved on and adopted the Gregorian calendar for official business.
Japan hasn’t had to face a calendar change for a generation — and that was before the hyper-speed computer era.
In 1989, when the calendar switched to the Heisei era from the Showa, the announcement was made the same day that Emperor Hirohito died. Within 24 hours, much of the initial work of replacing signs and updating forms was done by hand.
This time, the transition has been more orderly. The abdication date for the current emperor, Akihito, was announced in late 2017, giving the nation nearly 18 months to get ready.
Many did not. As of March, one-fifth of over 2,700 companies polled by METI had not taken steps to prepare for the switch, the agency said. Officials compounded the problem by keeping the new era’s name secret until April 1, just one month before the transition.
Government offices and domestic financial institutions, some of which rely on outdated computer systems, are the most likely to encounter problems, according to Moriya of METI.
“Some private companies may not be sufficiently aware of the issue, and don’t know what kind of problems they will have,” he said, adding that the agency had been holding private seminars to raise awareness.
Microsoft has said that it will push updated software to its clients via its cloud computing systems. The vulnerable ones will probably be those who run older versions of Microsoft Windows or those that have not updated their systems.
In some cases, system administrators may have to update operating systems almost as old as the Heisei era itself. Though the shift could be awkward or costly, it could also force more companies to get with the times, Moriya said.
“Some Japanese companies have used the same system for two or three decades,” he said. “The inside of the system has turned into a black box.”