Japan's Emperor Is Stepping Down Soon, Which Could Cause Major Headaches for Computer Calendars

By Patrick Lucas Austin on at

For most people, resigning from your job doesn’t necessitate the invention of any new computer characters, just a new Twitter bio. But as The Guardian reports, when Emperor Akihito, Japan’s current ruler, abdicates the Chrysanthemum Throne next year, that’s exactly what the country will need. Currently, there’s no computer character available to represent the next era on the Japanese calendar, which will honour current Crown Prince Naruhito, and it’ll be a tricky feat of scheduling to create one in time.

While Japan does use the Gregorian calendar, the Japanese calendar additionally keeps track of time using an era name representing the current emperor. In Akihito’s case, his January 1989 coronation rang in the Heisei era (we’re currently living in Heisei 30). The era indicating Naruhito’s reign, however, hasn’t been announced yet, making it especially difficult to create a kanji character representing the name.

It might not sound like a big deal, but for the Unicode Consortium, the organisation responsible for establishing standards when it comes to displaying text (and emoji) on devices around the globe, it means extra work on their end to accommodate the nonexistent era character, referred to as U+32FF by the organization. The current Heisei era character is “㍻,” or U+337B. From The Guardian:

Unicode needs to set the standard for that new character. But it can’t do that until it knows what it’s called, and it won’t know that until late February at best. Unfortunately, version 12 of Unicode is due to come out in early March, which means it needs to be finished before then, and can’t be delayed.

The bad timing means Unicode may have to update the scheduled version 12 release with a smaller 12.1 release.

That smaller update will still create major headaches for the organisation, as noted by Unicode Consortium technical director Ken Whistler in a planning memo about the character in question. “The characters encoded for these calendrical symbols in Unicode have compatibility decompositions, and those decompositions depend on the actual name chosen for the era,” Whistler wrote. “Because the decomposition, once assigned, is immutable, involving Unicode normalisation, the UTC cannot afford to make any mistakes here, nor can it just guess and release the code point early.”

Since major Unicode releases are resource intensive, according to Whistler, his proposal suggests some serious planning, as well as a more narrow focus compared to other minor releases. “This is a lot to chew on, but I think the UTC will be far better off going into this will a specific plan in hand, rather than just reacting in crisis mode once the new era name is announced next year right around the time of the Unicode 12.0 release,” wrote Whistler.