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Japanese are cashing in and coughing up to mark a new emperor's era

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This picture taken on April 1, 2019 shows women taking their commemorative photos of the printed T-shirts with the new era name "Reiwa" distributed for free at an event in Tokyo. Getty

Tokyo -- The name of Japan's new imperial era, drawn from a 1,200-year-old classic anthology of Japanese poetry, is hard to explain in English. But for entrepreneurial Japanese, the new "Reiwa" era unmistakably translates into one thing: instant profits.

Scarcely had the chief cabinet minister caught his breath after announcing the new imperial name before the country was overflowing with royal-themed schwag. The Central stationery store in Sapporo bragged it had stacked reams of Reiwa-imprinted file folders, calendars and buttons just 22 minutes after the fateful proclamation.

What is the new imperial period?

Japan's 85-year-old Emperor Akihito will step down in a rare abdication ceremony on April 30. His eldest son, Naruhito, 59, will take the throne in a ceremony the following day, thus marking the official start of the new Reiwa era. 

Japan uses both the Western calendar and imperial reign periods, often a source of confusion in daily life. But the reign period system is also a marker of identity for many citizens, who feel a sense of belonging akin to how Americans identify with musical, fashion or other historical periods in their lives. 

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Japan's Emperor Akihito (L) and Empress Michiko receive the greetings of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako as part of the ceremony marking 30th anniversary of Emperor Akihito's enthronement at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on February 24, 2019. Getty

The characters for Reiwa were drawn from Japan's oldest existing book of poetry, the Manyoshu — copies of the classic are also selling briskly — and after a day of foreign news organizations struggling to explain what it meant, the government announced the official English translation of the new era as "Beautiful Harmony."  

Cashing in on royal fever

Minutes after the announcement this week, the online marketplace Mercari was bristling with Reiwa t-shirts, stickers and coffee mugs. Special editions of newspapers, handed out free on the street during major events, were retailing for up to several hundred dollars each. Giveaway promotional bottles of Coca-Cola inscribed with the imperial reign letters cropped up online for about $100 each.

The prize for sheer speed may go to a Hiroshima company, which began taking orders for commemorative sake (Japanese rice wine) cups less than three minutes after the televised unveiling of the name — laser-printed to precisely reproduce the hand-wrought calligraphy displayed on TV by the chief cabinet minister. 

Commemorative bean jam buns, French-style patisserie, and even toilet paper emblazoned with the era name are on sale. Banking on the royal buzz, some proprietors offered discounts on meat-stuffed buns and a little extra ice cream to anyone whose name happens to include the auspicious letters of the impending era. 

Meanwhile, a Tokyo hotel is taking reservations for patrons to enjoy novelty king-sized hamburgers grilled up in honor of the new emperor and his reign. But those with plebeian appetites, not to mention commoner budgets, may be discouraged. 

"We've had big burgers before," said Mizuki Gotoh, who works at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo. "But never three kilos (6.6 pounds) each."

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A promotional photo from the Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel shows their "Golden Giant" burger, on offer for $900 to mark the new "Reiwa" imperial era. HANDOUT

The Golden Giant burger, a palatial mountain of wagyu luxury beef, foie gras and truffle shavings, with a sprinkling of gold leaf atop its frisbee-sized bun, measures about 10 inches in diameter and six inches high, and retails for about $900. 

So far, only one group has signed up for the regal feast, which the chef carves up like a pie into six or eight pieces. A normal-sized version of the royal-reign burger can be had for the still-princely sum of $180.