What is now the Japanese National Holiday- Culture Day (November 3rd), was long celebrated as the Birthday of the Emperor Meiji
By Avi Landau
Since 1948, November 3rd has been a Japanese national holiday called BUNKA NO HI (文化の日), or Culture Day in English. On this day it has become customary (or should I say appropriate) to do something CULTURAL – go to a museum, attend a concert or have a look at one of the many displays held at public halls or other venues showing paintings, calligraphy, ceramic works, flower arrangements, etc. created by local residents ( both adults and children)*. It is also on the 3rd of November that the Emperor bestows the ORDER OF CULTURE award on those who have been deemed as having made significant contributions in the arts, sciences, or education.
The whole month of November in fact has now come to be considered a suitable time for CULTURE, and many schools and universities will be holding their BUNKA SAIs (culture festivals) this month. There is also the National Culture Festival, held every November which, as you might already know, was held in Ibaraki Prefecture a few years ago.This year it is being held in Aichi Prefecture, as each year this event is held in a different prefecture (the next one in Ibaraki will be in about 42 years!). This culture festival involves a huge number of shows and showings in nearly every possible media, at various venues throughout the Prefecture. The festival will run through the month all the way to the first week of December.
Just what is the connection between November 3rd and CULTURE in Japan? Well, in fact, there is none. Culture Day was created by the government of post-WWII, U.S.-occupied Japan as part of a sweeping all-encompassing policy of rooting out any vestiges of Japanese militarism and ultra-nationalism, of which November 3rd, since 1868, had been an important symbol. That is because that day is the birthday of none other than the Emperor Meiji himself, who was restored to a central place in the national polity in 1868 after centuries of Shogun rule. It was under his banner that Japan set out on the road to successful modernization and industrialization. The Meiji Constitution (promulgated by the Emperor in 1889) was an important factor making this possible, but the document’s ambiguous wording also helped set Japan down the road to militarism, expansionism, ultra-nationalism and Emperor-worship (which might be looked on in a different light in Japan now if it hadn’t led to total devastation). After the Emperor’s death in 1912, the name of the holiday changed from Tencho No Setsu to Meiji-Setsu, and continued to be an important day to pay special reverence to the founder and inspiration for Japan’s then still-growing empire.
In post war Japan, there would be no room for the public sanction of such sentiments. With the new PEACE CONSTITUTION drawn up by the occupation authorities, the Emperor was established as a mere symbol of the state (as opposed to being the state itself!) and since then, the birthdays of reigning emperors have been called the prosaic Tenno Tanjobi (Emperor’s Birthday), as opposed to the more grandiose Tang Dynasty inspired Tencho No Setsu (which implies prayer for the long life of the sovereign). The celebration of Meiji No Setsu was also stopped and ultimately forgotten (ask your Japanese acquaintances if they know what November 3rd used to be), as the day was turned into Culture Day as part of the effort to create a NEW JAPAN, which celebrates PEACE, CULTURE, and SCIENCE. And there truly has been a miraculous transformation.
Of course, I would strongly recommend taking advantage of the many cultural events being held this month.
However, November is also a perfect time to think about the Emperor Meiji . It is still possible to find places where his birthday is remembered. Foremost, of course is the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu), where his spirit (along with his wife’s) is enshrined in the midst of a man-made forest of a million trees, brought from all corners of Japan (and the empire). November 1st is the anniversary of enshrinement and November 3rd has been renamed the “Grand Harvest Festival” (that is how far celebrating the Emperor has become taboo!). There is a display of mounted archery and other forms of martial arts.
It will be a busy month at Meiji Shrine with plenty to observe and photograph. Families all dressed up (with kids in traditional wear) for the Shichi-Go-San celebration (throughout the month) and amazing sculptures created by stacking fruits and vegetables will be on display for the harvest festival, and of course there are usually traditional weddings, especially on weekends. This is one of my favorite places in Tokyo and a perfect place to take visitors from abroad.
I would also like to recommend another place, but only for those especially interested in Japanese history. It is the FAR-off-the-tourist-track SEITOKU KINEN KAIGAKAN or the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, way out in the shrine’s outer garden.
I HAVE HEARD THAT THIS BUILDING WILL BE DEMOLISHED to make room for new facilities planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There is, however, a small movement going (petition drive etc.) to save this historic structure.
This weighty (made of stone) and grand western style building, which faces expansive grounds, houses 80 large paintings portraying (or should I say mythologizing?) the life of the Meiji Emperor. Besides the paintings, the only other thing on exhibit is the Emperor’s beloved horse (stuffed of course).
I have never seen any other visitors in the times that I have been there, but that is fine with me, as I could slowly take in each work (some by famous painters) as they progressively and dramatically tell the story of how the Emperor led the nation from backward seclusion to Empire and Glory. As you can imagine, it is a lonely place. It sure does make ya think!
Happy Culture Day!
Read what I wrote about the National Culture Festival (Kokubun-sai) which was held right here in Ibaraki. I talk about the origins of that events mascot, which is based on the great local hero- Tokugawa Mitsukuni, or as he is better known- MITO KOMON:
The Tsukuba University Festival
In past year`s Tsukuba University`s Culture Festival had been held in October over the Sports Day weekend. Finally, however, the event has been moved to the more appropriate (for reasons I discuss above) November, over the Culture Day weekend.
This year the event will be on the 2rd, 3rd and 4th of the month.
There are many Tsukubans who eagerly look forward to this festival and make sure their schedules can fit in time for a visit to Tsukuba U`s very long and narrow campus. The fact that the dates have been moved (starting last year) has probably led to some confusion.
Despite the fact that the month in which it will be held has changed, the festival and its various attraction will be the same. Regular go-ers all have their favorites.
For me, there is the music, especially the jazz cafe and the Andean Folk Music Troupe. This year, with the blessing of truly glorious weather, not a soul could have left disappointed. With a wide range of cheap and delicious foods, live music in all genres, arcade games, scientific displays, and technological exhibitions all served up with youthful enthusiasm, for me this festival is the TRUE TSUKUBA FESTIVAL (Tsukuba Matsuri).
As I have written before, one noticeable thing for many graduates of foreign universities is the lack of any political or INTELLECTUAL presence in the Tsukuba University festival. In recent years, however, environmental awareness has started to be felt with several booths selling organic produce or showing data from research on GREENER LIVING. Still walking the length of the campus this weekend, I felt pessimistic about the recent lowering of the voting age in Japan to 18.
Anyway, if you do go, and you should- go on an empty stomach!
Tsukuba Botanical Garden Admission FREE on Nov. 3rd
The botanical garden in Tsukuba usually gets CULTURAL as well for culture day. Last year they put on a small exhibit on plants which were used as fuel for illumination during the Edo Perod. Special activities include making fire from wood or flint, and pressing oil from camellias or EGOMA (a relative of the shiso (perilla) plant.
* The Culture Day related exhibitions, concerts and other performances in Tsukuba will mostly be held at the larger Community Centers (Ko-Ryu Senta, 交流センタ) around the city: Tsukuba (Hojo), Toyosato, Sakura, Yatabe, Oho and Kukizaki on the 2nd and 3rd of November.