Happy Birthday, Japan!
How old is Japan? Very old, that’s how old Japan is. So don’t expect a birthday cake because it’s unlikely we could find one big enough to accommodate the appropriate number of candles.
Japan’s oldest chronicles, Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, tell us Japan was founded in 660BCE on February 11th with the ascension of Jimmu, the first emperor, to the throne. February 11th, not at all accidentally, also coincides with the beginning of spring and the beginning of the New Year by the ancient way of counting.
In modern Japan, the occasion has nothing of the birthday party about it. In fact, it is a sombre day, in contrast with the colourful and sometimes boisterous celebrations that mark many of Japan’s festivals and holidays. Office workers and school kids have the day off, flags are flown in public places. In fact, it’s probably valued as a day away from work more than an occasion to remember the nation’s origins.
While the observance of Japan’s national day is somewhat muted, the origin of the nation is the exact opposite. The founding of Japan is an epic tale of gods, conquest and adventure.
The sun goddess Amaterasu created the islands and mountains of Japan, but it was her great-grandson who forged the nation. Seeking a central location to rule the country he set out from Kyushu to conquer Naniwa (which is now Osaka) but was defeated by the local ruler.
Realising that he lost because he was battling east, into the sun, he tried again, this time approaching Osaka from the east and heading west. In this manoeuvre he was aided by an eight-legged crow. The ploy was successful, and after his victory was accepted as emperor of all Japan.
According to the chronicles, Jimmu lived to 126 years old, an auspiciously long life for the founder of a nation.
Jimmu started his mythical quest from Kyushu, which interestingly, in the real-world, was indeed a focus of power and culture in Japan’s early history. Kyushu is also the venue for one of Dragonfly’s tours, the Japan Gateway Tour, which explores the dramatic volcanoes and hot springs of the region, and which also provides the traveller with a few days in Osaka, Jimmu’s goal in his quest for nationhood.