National Foundation Day of Japan celebrates the founding of the nation which in turn results from the ascension of the first emperor. This year I wanted to investigate the history and the story of this national holiday and introduce its relevance and effect on modern Japan.

Origins of the first emperor

Held on February 11th, National Foundation Day’s origins can be found all the way back to 660BC when the legendary emperor Jimmu (his posthumous name) became the first emperor of Japan. There are of course a lot of rumours, speculation and myth surrounding this date and Jimmu himself due to lack of verifiable information, but this is what makes the story interesting.

Other than emperor Jimmu’s posthumous name, his alternative names he went by include:

  • Kamu-yamato Iware-biko no mikoto.
  •  Kamu-yamato Iware-biko no Sumeramikoto.
  • Wakamikenu no mikoto.
  • Kamu-yamato Iware-biko hohodemi no mikoto.
  • Hikohohodemi.

In Japanese mythology, emperor Jimmu was supposedly a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Following the trail of descendants, emperor Jimmu was a 5th generation descendant that was born in Takachiho Miyazaki, which is in south-western Japan. Later in life, Jimmu, along with his brothers, wanted to move eastward to control the land from a better position.

The initial migration led his clan through the Seto Inland sea and then onto Naniwa, which is modern-day Osaka. It was here that Jimmu’s clan engaged in battle with a local clan chieftain, and the ensuing clash claimed the life of Jimmu’s older brother. Following their defeat, Jimmu’s clan pressed onto the Yamato Province, which is modern-day Nara, once again though they were forced to battle the same chieftain; this time emerging victorious. It was at Yamato Province after battling and consolidating with other clans, that Jimmu ascended as the first emperor. (Or a variation of such.)

It was from here that the line of emperors begun that continues onto the modern day, and consequently the foundation of modern Japan.

Emperor Jimmus's Journey through Japan.
The journey of emperor Jimmu.

Modern history

National Foundation Day has not always been a recurring day, neither has its meaning stayed the same. There have been periods in history where the national holiday was cancelled, and the subject of the celebration disputed.

Jumping forward 2533 years, in 1873 National Foundation Day; or as it was then known, Kigensetsu, was established. The aim was to promote a national identity and national structure headed by the emperor. Although its implementation was designed to honour the emperor (relating to the fact that they were supposedly descendants of gods and Amaterasu); for the next 38 years there was confusion by the citizens as to who the day was meant to celebrate. Many people choose to celebrate local gods and other specific events in history — rather than to the emperor as intended.

It was from 1911 through to the end of 1945 that Kigensetsu was finally achieving its effect of establishing loyalty to the emperor by the entire populace.

Following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War two, Kigensetsu was abolished. This was due to it’s ties to the emperor and its nationalist tendencies which was seen as being responsible for the events during the war. In 1966 however, Kigensetsu was re-established under the new name of National Foundation Day; albeit with its direct links to honouring the emperor removed. It’s significance was instead shifted to focus on the love of the nation.

Celebrations, customs, and activities

Being a national holiday and the national day of Japan, you would assume that the occasion is marked by a lot of fanfare — this is not entirely the case.

Many public buildings are closed and there are no large organised celebrations and festivities to replace the empty streets. There are no customary foods or mass pilgrimages and no media coverage either.

They are of course a handful of small gatherings and events to participate in. Focused around Tokyo, crowds often gather around the imperial place and shrines in the capital, with processions often taking place. Flag waving and a Mikoshi (portable shrines) are the extent of what you’ll find.

Throughout the rest of Japan, visits to shrines and other national monuments are common but little festivities occur. It is now a family day in modern Japan as well as being a day of reflection; the expression of patriotism in public has become a frowned upon and debated subject.

This all stems from the result of World War two and the idea that nationalism played a role in the closing stages. With the re-introduction of National Foundation Day, Japan is trying to navigate a fine line between reviving and building traditions while preventing ultra-nationalism.

Findings and further reading

This is an overview of the history and meanings of Japan’s National Foundation Day. There is much more that can be discussed but would diverge quite far from the original topic of this post.

That being said I want to introduce a few other avenue’s that can be used for further reading, should you wish to delve deeper into this narrative. Many elements of the BC era can’t be verified but following the breadcrumbs can produce some interesting findings.

A few interesting topics and ideas that I came across while researching the origins of Jimmu and National Foundation Day:

  • How Jimmu’s story bears similar aspects to the Yayoi migration.
  • How the change to the Gregorian calendar from the Lunisolar calendar may have influenced the February 11th date.

I hope this provides some interesting insights into Japan’s national holiday and how it relates to the Japanese people.