“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Jaaapaaaan! Happy birthday to you!!! Yah! Now, blow out your candles! All 2,674 of them!”
Today is a national holiday here in Japan: It’s Kenkoku Kinenbi, or National Foundation Day in English. The day is a celebration of the foundation of Japan, which occurred on February 11 in 660 BCE.
Or was it?!
▼ Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan and possible ancestor of Davy Crockett
According to legend, Japan is the oldest country in the world, having existed since its founding by Emperor Jimmu in 660 BCE. This is, of course, based off of the myth recorded in the Kojiki, the earliest extant work of Japanese history available to us, but even the CIA World Factbook lists the date as the “traditional date of the founding of the nation by Emperor Jimmu.” Of course, the problem here is that while the Kojiki may be partly based on fact, it’s impossible to say how much, and it’s possible that “Emperor Jimmu” never existed!
▼ But if the CIA says it, it must be true!
Still, February 11, 660 BCE is commonly accepted as the cultural founding of Japan–though the earliest “historically real” emperor is identified as Emperor Ōjin, who is believed to have ruled from around 270 to 310 CE. Following this, Emperor Kimmei is the earliest Japanese emperor with confirmed dates of rule: From 539 to 571.
▼ Emperor Ōjin, doing his best ZZ Top impression
Of course, Japan in the sixth century was a completely different place than what we normally think of as “Japan” today. At that time, no one would have even recognized the name–it was called “Yamato” and the Emperor’s rule over the archipelago wasn’t absolute. However, you could justifiably say that this was the beginning of Japanese society as we know it today thanks to the formal introduction of Buddhism to Japanese society.
▼ The red section roughly marks the area controlled by the emperor during the Yamato period.
A great stretch of time lies between the Yamato period and today, during which time the Japanese archipelago underwent violent social upheavals in the form of multiple civil wars. While the Imperial line managed to survive, the claim that it has remained unbroken since 660 BCE is slightly overstated, as the Nanboku-cho, a period of time during which there were two emperors in Japan, established a tradition whereby successive emperors were alternately selected from the two lines.
▼ Emperor Go-daigo, the cause of a whole lot of trouble!
But for many historians, Japan didn’t actually come into existence until the ratification of the Meiji Constitution on November 29, 1890, which established a constitutional monarchy. On the other hand, the Meiji government fell with the end of World War II, after which the current Japanese government was established on May 3, 1947, founding what many historians think of as Japan.
▼ Emperor Meiji, knowing he looks super fly.
So, where does all this leave us? Well, it really depends on what you consider a country to be! If you think of a country purely in terms of government, then Japan is less than a century old. But few people would think of country solely in political or geographic terms. While the concept of the nation-state is a relatively modern invention, there has long existed the very visceral feeling of a country as being a shared cultural experience–standing on the shoulders of giants as it were. And it is that definition of country which best fits Japan, a county with a long and grand history and culture!
So, even if Emperor Jimmu wasn’t real, and even if no one actually knows when Japan was founded, we still like to think of this day, 2,674 years ago, as the birth of one of the craziest, wildest, most exciting, and most beautiful places on earth.
Happy birthday, Japan! Here’s to a couple more millennia!