Some Musings on the History of Japan`s National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinenbi, 建国記念日)
By Avi Landau
Before 1872 and the adoption of the Western Gregorian Calendar, the Japanese kept track of the passage of the years in one way – the NENGO system, in which a new ERA (年号) was proclaimed with the accession of each new emperor, with each successive year of rule during that reign numbered, advancing by one on each (Lunar) New Year`s Day (which usually fell in February). In fact, this system is STILL used in everyday Japanese life, with this year being the 3rd year REIWA (零和) – the name of the current NENGO – in addition to it being 2021.
Besides being used for all official paperwork, registration forms, most invoices, etc. , you will often hear people use the NENGO to indicate the year something has happened (or will happen). For example you might hear someone say:` The Tokyo Olympics were held in Showa 39 (1964).″ Another thing I have noticed is that most Japanese remember their year of birth ONLY in NENGO, and have to do a conversion in their head before telling you what it is in Gregorian!
If you this sounds like it could get complicated, you are right! There are in fact 256 NENGO era names ( sometimes they were actually changed DURING the reign of a particular Emperor – usually because some disaster had occurred, but sometimes because of the appearance of an unusually auspicious omen).The oldest “official” and verifiable era name is Taika , and Taika 1 corresponds to the year 645 AD. The current Nengo, Reiwa began in 2019. Of course, before the war, many would memorize them all! Now, educated people are familiar with only a few of the more famous era`s of the past ( by that I mean the era`s in which great historical events occurred.). If we come upon a text in which only an obscure reign year is indicated, for example 寿永(Juei) 3 , we would have to check a conversion chart ( printed or online) to learn that that year corresponds with the Gregorian 1183.
At the time of implementation of the Western Calendar, which is a Christian Calendar in so far as it counts the years gone by since the birth of Jesus, the Japanese felt it necessary to continue emphasizing the continuity and great history of their own Imperial Family, by implementing another way of measuring the passage of years – the Imperial Year system, which counted the years gone by since the accession of the first (mythical) Emperor- Jimmu Tenno, an event which was said to have occurred in 660 BC. Thus the year 1872 was proclaimed as being the year 2,532.
In tandem with this, a special day to commemorate the foundation of the dynasty and thus the nation itself was conceived of and established. This national holiday would be called the Kigen Setsu ( 紀元節), and was first celebrated on January 29th 1872. In that year, that date represented New Year`s Day according to the old calendar, which had been recognized as New Year Day for more than 1000 years (in 1872 the Japanese Changed the traditional celebrations to January 1st).
Keeping the holiday on the day of the Lunar New Year was reconsidered , however, as officials feared that it would promote the continued celebration of the Lunar O-Shogatsu (New Year`s according to the old (Chinese) calendar), something they wanted very much to discourage. February 11th according to the Western Calendar, was decided upon as the date on which The Emperor Jimmu ascended the throne ( just how they came upon that date, no one is sure!), and the date upon which the Kigen Setsu would be celebrated each year.
Before WWII, the Kigen Setsu was a day of great importance, with grand parades and ceremonies being held to promote the Emperor as a living link with the past and as a unifier of the nation ( and a descendant of the Gods as well).
Under the US occupation, this holiday, so strongly connected to Japanese Nationalism ( and militarism) was abolished, only to be reborn ( in completely toned-down form) – as National Foundation Day, in 1966.
In recent years, besides the presence of families who raise the national flag ( or flags) outside their front doors ( and this is something these certain people do on EVERY National Holiday), there is really not anything very special to report about on Kenkoku Kinen Bi ( as the holiday is called in Japanese). Its really JUST A DAY OFF.
When it come to me though, whenever February 11th rolls around, I cant help but think about a strange, and some would say EMBARRASSING musical event that took place as part of the the extravagant Kigen Setsu celebration of 1940 – the 2,600th anniversary of the imperial line, and the nation`s foundation- a time in which nationalist fervor, and reverence for the Emperor were about to explode into world war ( the war on the continent had already been raging for seven years).
I first learned of these celebrations while reading a biography of one of my favorite composers – Benjamin Britten. It goes like this:
As tensions were building between Japan, the US and Great Britain, the young musician was living in the US. He had been struggling to get by there, when suddenly he was offered a commission to compose music for the 2,600th Anniversary of the Founding of the Japanese Empire celebrations.
Needing the money, Britten accepted, and submitted a piece that he had already finished, but that he thought would be appropriate for the occasion – his Sinfonia da Requiem.
The British government (and people) were already quite weary of the composer’s pacifistic (non-violent) stance when it came to Nazi Germany ( which was probably why HE was asked to compose for the event), and he was urged by his countrymen not to go to Japan for the celebrations at a time when war in Europe was already raging, and when Japan was forming deeper bonds with its new new allies Germany and Italy.
It turned out though, that he didn’t HAVE TO make the tough decision about whether to go to Japan or not – it was decided for him. Despite the fact that he had promptly received the payment promised him, his piece was rejected by the festival committee – because “it did not express the proper felicitations befitting the occasion”. The name of the piece, was also found to be offensive – as it was overtly Christian ( which Britten found ironic).
And that ended being a very lucky break for Britten, because if he HAD attended and if his music HAD been performed it would have forever been a stain on his reputation ( in fact, in that same year the Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Tokyo, were CANCELLED).
As part of the celebrations, the Japanese government commissioned musical works from other composers of various countries- the most famous of those who submitted works was the great Richard Strauss, who was urged by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels to do so. The other composers whose works were performed, were from the other axis partner, Italy – the now overlooked Ildebrando Pizzetti , and Jacques Ibert, (who at that time was living in Italy). A work by Sandor Veress of Hungary was also performed.
What made the event so politically incorrect was the fact that the German and Italian delegations heartily Heil Hitlered throughout the ceremonies, and a Jewish conductor was told he could not perform.
The works themselves, even the Strauss piece, were not very good either, it seems, and they have all pretty much been forgotten.
Britten’s work, while no masterpiece either, premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York, and was finally played in Tokyo in 1956.
Britten also went on to compose three chamber operas highly influenced by Japanese Noh theater and its music. My favorite is Curlew River ( based on the Noh play Sumida River).
It just goes to show you that not much great culture comes out of ultra-nationalism ( though there are, of course, the films of Leni Riefenstahl)
And with that, I must say that I am very happy that in today`s Japan Kenkoku Kinen Bi (National Foundation Day) is nothing really more than a day off.