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393915042_u6hn5-o-21Jimmu Tenno rides through the ancient streets of Sawara during the Autumn Festival, October, 2008 (Photo by Dane D.)

JIMMU,  the first human descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu became the first emperor of the Japanese Islands on the eleventh day of the second month in the year 660 BC. Akihito, the current emperor, a direct descendant of Jimmu, is the 125th emperor in 2669 years of uninterrupted imperial rule.

With such a colorful and august narrative, you would expect the history conscious Japanese to celebrate this day with grand festivals, scrumptious feasts, and other proud displays of national chauvinism.If so, you would be greatly disappointed.  Many Japanese I talk to aren’t even sure what holiday February 11th commemorates; those who can name it, can’t explain it, and nearly no one can tell me how old Japan is on this national birthday.  This could be because, unlike the Declaration of Independence or the Storming of the Bastille, the ascension of Emperor Jimmu cannot be verified by historical records.  In fact, the first historically verifiable emperor was Kimmei in 509, nearly a   millennium after the mythological Jimmu.

There is an even more mystifying explanation for the nation’s lack of interest – the ancient holiday is actually a modern invention.

National Foundation Day (建国記念の日 kenkoku kinen-no-hi) was established in 1872, four years after the Meiji government reinstated the emperor following centuries of Daimyo rule.  With its relevance to the God-Emperor and Shinto religious roots the Jimmu fable was a valuable propaganda tool for the aspiring military rulers.  No wonder then that the holiday fell out of favor after the war.  So why then, did the post-war government decide to reinstate the holiday as late as 1966?  If you want to solve that mystery, I can only say do not ask a Japanese under 70 – your question would leave them totally mystified.

httpsanjurococolog-niftycomblogNational Day celebration 1940 – Japanese year 2600. (Photo: sanjuro.cocolog-nifty.comblog)

© Dane Degenhardt, Monde Dane * アメリカンスクールオブ ラングエジーズ