National Foundation Day (建国記念の日): A Patriotic Holiday for Japan

Last Updated on 10.02.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Due to its somewhat controversial origins, National Foundation Day was abolished following the post-war constitution, but it subsequently bounced back 20 years later. We wonder: does it still hold the same meaning?

What is Japan’s 建国記念の日 (National Foundation Day)?

National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi, 建国記念の日) is a public holiday which occurs annually on February 11. If there is a day to be patriotic in Japan, it is National Foundation Day. As the name implies, National Foundation Day celebrates the foundation of Japan, and the ascension of Japan’s first emperor: Emperor Jimmu.

According to the legend, Emperor Jimmu is a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and Japan’s first ruler. His accession is traditionally dated as 660 BCE, on the first day of the first month following the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

“Kenkoku Kinen no Hi” Explained

  • “Kenkoku” (建国) means “founding of a nation”
  • “Kinen” (記念) means “commemoration”
  • “no” (の) is the possessive particle (similar to “of”)
  • And “Hi”(日) means “day”.

Putting those together, we have the direct — albeit fairly messy — translation “founding of a nation, commemoration day”

The Beginnings of the Holiday

The origins of National Foundation Day are bound tightly to the Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin, 明治維新) — a pivotal period in Japan’s history. Though this fact alone doesn’t make the holiday contentious, rather, it was the government’s intent for the holiday at that time.

Joys of modernization came with the Meiji Ishin, but so did massive political, social and economic changes, including the government’s attempt to connect Shintoism to the State. The national holiday “Empire Day” (Kigensetsu, 紀元節) was a direct product of these efforts, and from 1873 until 1945, Kigensetsu was used to commemorate the Emperor as the “one true ruler of Japan”.

National Foundation Day was originally called 紀元節 (Empire Day). Proclaimed by the Meiji government in 1872, Empire Day was likely created to unify the country under the Imperial family’s rule. The same year Japan decided to officially adopt the Gregorian calendar was the first time this day was observed on January 29.

This holiday was deemed to be nationalistic in nature, so it was abolished in Japan’s Post-war Constitution. In 1873, Empire Day was moved to the 11 of February. Indeed, as many Japanese were still observing the Chinese calendar, Empire Day was confused with the New Year celebrations. Empire Day was abolished after World War II and re-established as National Foundation Day in 1966 after numerous complaints.

Why on the February 11?

The legend states that Emperor Jimmu ascended to the throne on the first day of the new year, but until 1873, Japan used the lunisolar calendar. It was during the modernization of Japan that the Meiji Emperor deemed it necessary to switch from the Lunisolar Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar which is used in Japan today. Hence, the first day of the Lunisolar Calendar corresponds to February 11 in the Gregorian Calendar.

How is National Foundation Day Celebrated?

The original holiday, Kigensetsu, was once a big occasion in Japan. It was considered to be one of the four most famous holidays, and so the day was marked with celebrations and large parades. These days, however, the day is much more understated. During this time, many businesses and government buildings are closed. Although you will probably see more Japanese flags, there aren’t many overt displays of patriotism.

Vocabulary

To commemorate Japan on this day, here are some kanji connected to this holiday, in order of difficulty (based on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, otherwise known as the “JLPT”).
How many did you already know?
JLPT Level 5: Japan, 日本, reading: にほん, or more formally: にっぽん
JLPT Level 4: Company, 社, onyomi:しゃ, kunyomi: やしろ
JLPT Level 3: Holiday/absence from work, 休暇, reading: きゅうか
JLPT Level 2: History, 史, reading: し
JLPT Level 1: National Flag, 旗, onyomi: き, kunyomi: はた

Interested in Japanese culture? For related articles:

When is National Foundation Day in Japan?

National Foundation Day, or Kenkoku Kinen no Hi, falls on February 11 every year. It’s a national holiday in Japan.

What was National Foundation Day first called in Japan?

National Foundation Day was originally called 紀元節 (Empire Day). In 1873, Empire Day was moved to the 11 of February because many Japanese were still observing the Chinese calendar, Empire Day was confused with the New Year celebrations.

How do Japanese people celebrate National Foundation Day?

These days, it’s less celebrated. During this time, many businesses and government buildings are closed. Although you will probably see more Japanese flags, there aren’t many overt displays of patriotism.

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