Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Invented traditions: Emperor Jimmu & Saint Valentine

Invented traditions are not unique to Japan, they are the mainstay of all nation-states, but Japan does seem to have an inordinate amount of them.

This month we have had two of them.

On Wednesday, February 11th, it was National Foundation Day in Japan. National Foundation day was created in the Meiji era to celebrate the founding of Japan by the first Emperor Jimmu on February 11th 660 BC! This date comes from the early chronicles of Japan written in the late 7th Century by the Yamato rulers to justify their rule over Japan. Historians believe Jimmu, and the nine emperors after him, are pure fabrication. Certainly the date of 660BC is hundreds of years before the first of the people who would later be known as the Japanese started arriving in the islands. Its also 1,000 or more years before the Yamato rose to regional prominence in the Kinai area.

From the Meiji era until the end of the Second World War these ancient fairy tales were taught as history, and while this is no longer strictly true there is certainly an encouragement to believe them as history even nowadays. There is a school history textbook that includes a map of Jimmus invasion from Kyushu to the Kinai, and nowhere does it state that this is myth not history. Also even today in front of Heian Shrine in Kyoto is a sign in English about "2,600 years of Imperial rtule in Japan".

There is. I believe , a general tendency in Japan to believe that Japans culture and history go back much further in time than historical fact. (an excellent book looking at Japanese historians and the ancient myths is here)

Then, on the 14th of February we had Valentines day. I know valentine traditions are quite varied around the world, but for me there are two aspects that define it. One, it is a day for romance and romantic love, and secondly, there is the element of anonymity and secrecy. Japanese Valentines day has neither of these elements.

Valentines Day in Japan is for women to give chocolates to men. This should include your boyfriend, if you have one, but mostly its for giving chocolate to your boss and your male co-workers. There is no anonymity, as the chocolate is "giri choco", obligation chocolate, and one month later on March 14th, White Day, the men are supposed to return the favor to the women who gave them giri choco. In actual fact White Day is much more low-key, and I believe there is far less return-gift giving.

The chocolate companies in japan make half their annual sales in the few weeks leading up to Valentines Day. There lies the clue as to who invented this unique Japanese tradition.

The Englishman has some funny post on Japanese valentines chocolate...


  1. Are you saying that the Kojiki isn't absolute fact!?! I'll bet you'll next tell me the Bible isn't either...

  2. Ted... youre not going to drive by my place in a black bus are you?