National Foundation Day (建国記念の日 or Kenkoku Kinen no Hi) is celebrated annually in Japan on February 11. You may have guessed from the name that it is a holiday celebrating the founding of the nation we all know today as Japan. In a very basic way, it can be considered as an equivalent of sorts to Fourth of July, or Independence Day, in the United States. However that would be a simplistic explanation of the holiday. So, what makes National Foundation Day different?
The foundation of Japan is marked by the ascension of its first emperor, Jimmu, which has been traced to New Year’s Day in the traditional lunisolar calendar. The date of this occasion comes from Japanese chronicles, the Kojiki and Nihon-shoki, which state that he ascended to the throne on the first day of the first month. The year this occurred has been placed at around 660 BC and the land where he established his center of power became known as Yamato. Yamato, along with being the ancient name of Japan, has been used to describe the dominant ethnic group in Japan and even an entire period in Japanese history when the Japanese imperial court ruled from modern-day Nara Prefecture, known then as Yamato Province. It is also believed that the emperor descended from the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, and that all descendants of the imperial line can be traced back to Emperor Jimmu and Amaterasu. However, the Kojiki and Nihon-shoki consist primarily of a collection of myths concerning the origin of Japan. Therefore, their accuracy has often been debated by historians and archeologists though both are the most important historical tools at their disposal at the same time.
The Japanese government officially designated the day as a national holiday during the Meiji period, which coincided with the switch from the lunisolar calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1873. In 1872, when the holiday was originally proclaimed, it was January 29th of the Gregorian calendar, which corresponded to Lunar Year 1873. In contrast to the government’s expectation, most people just saw the day as the Lunar New Year instead of National Foundation Day. Therefore, they decided to move the holiday to February 11th of the Gregorian calendar in 1873.
The original form of the holiday was known as Empire Day (紀元節 or Kigensetsu), which is thought to have been established by the Meiji Emperor to bolster the legitimacy of the imperial family following the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was supported by those who believed that focusing on the emperor would serve a unifying purpose. By linking his rule with the Emperor Jimmu, and thus Amaterasu, the emperor declared himself to be the one, true ruler of Japan. Owing to its reliance on Shinto mythology and reinforcement of Japanese nobility, Empire Day was abolished following World War II. Ironically, February 11th also happens to be the same day when General MacArthur approved the draft version of the model Constitution of 1946. The holiday was then re-established as National Foundation Day in 1966. Although it has been stripped of its overt references to the Emperor and examples of extreme patriotism or nationalism are now rare, modern-day customs include the raising of Japanese flags and reflecting upon the meaning of Japanese citizenship.
I sincerely hope that this mini-history lesson about National Foundation Day’s origins and present-day practice is both useful and informative.
P.S. The Prime Minister of Japan always gives an address on this day. You can check out PM Shinzo Abe’s message here: http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/96_abe/statement/201402/11message_e.html