The celebration of the foundation of a nation should be an important one. For many nations, it is a day that is quite easy to celebrate. They may be steeped in traditions and even a historical record that is convoluted, murky, and exaggerated, if not falsified, but their origins are quite well known and, to an extent, believed.
Independence Day in the United States is, perhaps, the quintessential such holiday. It celebrates the “Declaration of Independence” from Great Britain, leading to a great war that established the great nation. July 4th celebrates the beginning of the war, the unified struggle against an imperial oppressor.
So what, then, is February 11 to Japan? Why is the day significant in the founding of the nation? When, after all, was the nation founded?
Ostensibly, National Foundation Day in Japan celebrates the foundation of Japan and the accession of its first emperor, Emperor Jimmu(神武天皇) on 11 February 660 BC. This is the official reason given for the holiday.
So what is the basis for the belief that, first, Jimmu existed, in the first place, and, in the second, that he did, in fact, ascend to the throne on this day?
Curiously, the primary source is the Kojiki(古事記), the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, dating from the early 8th century (711–712). Another is the Nihon Shoki(日本書紀), the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history. Apparently, according to these records, Jimmu is a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu(天照). Also, according to the Kojiki, Jimmu died when he was 126 years old. Virtually all academic research on these great tomes treat them as literary works - fiction - and not as a historical record.
I’ve got nothing against myths, personally. I find it mostly charming, but delusional, that some people prefer to think of fairy tales as the real thing. But when mythology is the basis for public policy, that is the start of nothing good.
Imperial Cults and Christmas
It turns out, though, that the elevation of Jimmu historically, is actually a central component of the Imperial cult that formed following the Meiji Restoration. In 1873, a holiday called Kigensetsu (紀元節: Empire Day) was established on February 11.
The highlight of the Kigensetsu was always a rally where ordinary people would kowtow to a portrait of the emperor, followed by the singing of the national anthem and patriotic speeches - whose principle theme was always that Japan was a uniquely virtuous nation because of its rule by the god-emperors. These speeches were a theme that carried over easily into Japan’s schools, where the Japanese educational calendar conveniently schedules gradation ceremonies not long after the holiday.
After World War II, Kigensetsu was abolished, replaced by Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (建国記念の日: National Foundation Day). While some patriotic celebrations continued on the holiday into the 1950s, during the American Occupation, these fell out of favor, and only the holiday remains.
Right wing nationalists, though, continue to rally on this day to try to reestablish Japan’s right to belligerence and militancy. National Foundation Day, it seems, bears closer resemblance to Christmas than the 4th of July. It’s a politically imposed religious precept, used by rightists who see it as an opportunity to impose their religious dogma on everyone else - angry, old, Bible and Kojiki-toting men.
What's On the Mike?
Mike Kato is a transplanted California who has been living continuously in Japan now since 1987, longer than his time in California - by nearly a decade. This accounts, in part, for his middle-age paunch and oyaji humor. Please don’t gag on the jokes that fall flat.
“On the Mike” will be a series of articles in which Mike will write about the things that interest him - about his loves, pet peeves, and the things that really matter about Japan and its relationships in the world. He hopes that there is something interesting for everyone here. Please follow him on Facebook and Twitter or drop him a line if you like anything in particular, agree, or even if you think that he’s just bullocks.