Tennō_Jimmu_detail_01神武天皇 Jimmu-tennō: The legendary “heavenly sovereign” Emperor Jimmu,
as depicted in an 1891 woodblock print

Today, 11 February, is Japan’s National Foundation Day (建国記念の日, Kenkoku Kinen no Hi). Technically, we missed it because of the International Date Line; it’s already 12 February in Tokyo. Yet let’s take a moment to understand this date and its place in Japanese culture and history.

You’ll remember a while ago we posted about How (and When) do you say “Happy New Year.” In a way, that’s what is behind Japan’s National Foundation Day. It falls right around the time of the Chinese New Year, which was celebrated this year on 08 February 2016. The Japanese National Foundation Day, in its origin, stems from the same astronomical cycle: a lunisolar calendar. However, while the Chinese New Year still follows the advent of the new moon, causing it to vary anywhere between 21 January and 20 February, the date of Japan’s National Foundation Day was fixed to the Western Gregorian Calendar, and falls on the same date each year.

The Chinese calendar was introduced into Japan in the 6th Century CE. The legendary traditions around National Foundation Day harken back 1,200 years earlier, to the 6th-7th Centuries BCE. This was the era of the reign of the mythical Emperor Jimmu, who was said to descend directly from the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. His tale is recounted in the third chapter of the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classic Japanese history. The commemoration of this date, though, is far more recent.

The holiday was established during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th Century. Originally called 紀元節, Kigensetsu (“Epoch Day”), the first commemoration in 1872 was held on 29 January, but this coincided with the Lunar New Year. So for the next year, 1873, the Japanese government purposefully moved it to 11 February, and fixed it to the Gregorian calendar, to make sure it was distinguished as National Foundation Day. The European-style dating also emphasized the processes of Westernization occurring after the Bakumatsu (the “Opening of Japan” to foreign trade).

This holiday only lasted until 1948, when the post-war government issued a “Law on National Holidays” that deprecated anything construable as worship of the Emperor (as per the 1946 Ningen-sengen).

For many Japanese, though, the date had still come to mean something, even beyond the Emperor. You see, most countries have a specific date of their foundation. For the United States, you have the Fourth of July, which commemorates the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For the French, 14 July is Bastille Day. Canada Day is 01 July. And so on. But because the origins of Japan are so ancient, there was no more relevant annual date to commemorate the nation. So in 1966 National Foundation Day was reinstated as a holiday, though it was stripped of its Imperial and Shinto trappings.

YouTube Video from of National Foundation Day celebration at the Meiji Jingu Shrine

By 2016, it’s become even more secular. Most modern Japanese only view the day as a welcome day-off from work. This year, for the Nikkei, it was a day to catch a breather from the recent turbulent Asian markets. For others, it remains a highly symbolic day of controversy, often used to push for or against political revisions to the Japanese Constitution. Yet very few know or remember much about the history behind the holiday. As one member of the Japanese junior chamber of commerce observed, “While Japanese say they feel pride in their country, it’s something of a paradox that they don’t know about its founding.”