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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien


National Foundation Day (Kigensetsu; Kenkoku kinen no hi) in Modern Japan

7. June 2000 / 18.30

Ken Ruoff, Assistant Professor of Japanese History, Portland State University

In 1872, the Japanese government, then in the process of creating a modern nation-state, established Foundation Day to commemorate the alleged founding of the Japanese Empire by Emperor Jimmu on precisely 11 February 660 B.C. (Empirical evidence indicates that the imperial house originated approximately 1000 years later) In 1940, when Japan was at war with China, the government staged grand and meticulously-planned 2600th anniversary celebrations of Jimmu’s accession. The various 2600th anniversary celebrations constitute, as a whole, the most important national ceremony in Imperial Japan, a landmark example of the use of the quote;unbroken imperial linequote; ideology to mobilize people to the cause of the state. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Foundation Day was abolished under order of the American occupation authorities, only to be reestablished in 1966 as a result of a fifteen-year nationalistic and, as I demonstrate in my forthcoming book on the monarchy in postwar Japan, popular movement.

I show that it was the success of an eighty-group coalition led by the Association of Shinto Shrines in fostering grassroots demonstrations of support between 1952 and 1966 that eventually pushed the Japanese Diet, in the face of heated opposition from the political left, to reestablish Foundation Day. By focusing on the democratic lobbying techniques of emperorist right-wing civil groups, I call into question historiography that links civil society only to the left. Most accounts of postwar history accuse the government of having restored this holiday quote;from abovequote; in the face of an unwilling populace, but my research demonstrates that this was not the case.

My research on Foundation Day in the postwar period has led me to reconsider the infamous 1940 celebrations, about which, astonishingly, very little appears to have been written in English, while Japanese historiography tends to emphasize the state’s utterly dominant role in planning and carrying out the celebrations. Preliminary research has led me to believe that although the diverse Foundation Day ceremonies of 1940 are directly traceable to a special cabinet-level 2600th Anniversary Celebration Planning Bureau established in 1935, it is misleading to portray the 1940 ceremonies as something simply foisted upon the people by the central government. During my stay in Japan, I will explore how the central government was subjected to bottom-up pressure from civil groups (including business organizations), local governmental bodies, and even professional historians regarding how the 2600th anniversary should be properly commemorated. My talk will consist of (1) a presentation of my research on Foundation in Postwar Japan; (2) a sketch of my present take on the 1940 celebrations, after which I will especially welcome suggestions about where to go with further research on the 2600th Anniversary shindig. Is there more written on this topic than I have been able to locate? I know that certain youth and women’s groups played important roles in the postwar Foundation Day reestablishment movement, so which of their antecedents likely had a hand in the 2600th anniversary festivities? There are many questions to consider.