February 11, 2011

National Foundation Day – Japan

Japanese tradition states that on February 11, 660 B.C., Emperor Jimmu founded Japan. Of course, the actual date is suspect. Not only did Japan use a completely different calendar way back then, there isn't any evidence that Emperor Jimmu actually existed. (Of course, complete lack of evidence does not prove that such a man never lived!)

This holiday, called Kigensetsu, used to be a big deal and was celebrated with large parades and festivals. Emperors of Japan used the opportunity to focus attention on their own supposed ancestral tie to Jimmu and therefore their right to rule. However, the holiday was abolished in the aftermath of World War II. It was named National Foundation Day in 1966, and the “celebration” of the day is pretty quiet these days. No parades or festivals—although people do put up Japanese flags.

History and Legend

Before people kept written records of population, harvests, buying and selling, and events, important memories were kept alive through oral telling. However, as you can imagine, oral histories tended to become less and less accurate—often more and more exaggerated—through each telling. This is why modern historians are often unsure about truly old tales—are they supposed to be true, or are they fictional tales? If the former, can we find any evidence that they are in fact true? Which parts are true?

Apparently there is no evidence for the existence of the first nine emperors in the traditional Japanese account of succession, and it is not until the 29th emperor in the 500s A.D. that we see dates that can be verified by evidence.

Like I said, Jimmu may or may not have ever existed. Some parts of his story seem certain (or almost certain) to be legendary (not true, or at least exaggerated). Jimmu was supposed to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and he was supposed to have lived 126 years. Also, as he wandered the land that is now Japan, Jimmu was led by a three-legged bird. Surely most of these details, at least, are fictional.

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