National Foundation Day ((建国記念の日), or “Kenkoku Kinen no Hi”, is an annual Japanese public holiday that celebrates the day the country was established all the way back in 660 BC. It takes place every February 11th and is one of the most significant Japanese holidays, alongside other festivities such as Showa Day, New Years, Golden Week, and the Obon Holiday.
The calendar date of National Foundation Day was originally celebrated on the first day of the new year in accordance with the lunisolar calendar. During the Meiji period (1868-1912 AD), though, Japan phased out the lunisolar calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar in an attempt to modernize and Westernize Japan. As a result, the holiday has since been acknowledged on February 11th.
As one of, if not the oldest country in the world, Japan has an equally long history to match. In its over 2,000 years of existence, Japan has always been an imperial nation and thus ruled by an emperor. Even in the present day, where the emperor plays a purely symbolic role rather than a political one, the emperor is still a significant and highly revered figure in the Japanese consciousness.
National Foundation Day is thought to be the day in which the first emperor, Jimmu, ascended to power in 660 BC. He is believed to be a descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess and highest deity of Japanese mythology. In her honor, Jimmu set out to conquer the lands of what is now Japan starting with the ancient Yamato Province (present day Nara Prefecture). With Amaterasu’s blessing and strength on his side, he led a triumphant invasion that eventually resulted in him conquering the region and establishing himself as the first emperor of Japan.
Japan has always followed a hereditary monarchy, meaning that all emperors that have held the throne since Emperor Jimmu, including the current Japanese emperor, Emperor Naruhito (2019-present), are believed to be direct descendants of his.
The existence of Emperor Jimmu has long been debated given the ancient and mythical context of the story of his ascension. Many historians and scholars hold the controversial belief that he is likely more of a legendary, mythical figure rather than a person who actually lived since there is little definitive evidence proving his existence.
Pictured: The Japanese Imperial Palace located in Chiyoda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo
The goal of National Foundation Day in Japan is to inspire a healthy sentiment of nationalism within the Japanese people and to pray for prosperity for their long standing nation. Every year on February 11th, lots of large celebrations are held all across the many islands of Japan. While Independence Day in the U.S., for example, is generally a rowdy occasion, National Foundation Day celebrations are typically modest and focus more on appreciation rather than grand celebrations. Major cities like Tokyo host large parades and the flag of Japan is raised high all across the nation.
Many Shinto shrines host National Foundation Day celebrations known as Kigensai (紀元祭) where a procession carries portable shrines (mikoshi; 神輿) to the temple. This is often followed by entertainment in the form of reenactments, flag raisings, and other performances.
Some Japanese citizens will also travel to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward to pay their respects to the emperor and visit the humble yet elegant castle. The country’s Prime Minister will also often give a speech in honor of the holiday.
The Kashihara Shrine (橿原神宮) located in the city of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, is another common celebration site on National Foundation Day, since it is said to sit in the the location where Jimmu ascended to emperor in 660 BC. It is also supposedly where the site of his tomb is located, although it has been lost to history whether or not this is his actual resting place.