IF IT ISN’T UNIQUE, the Tokyo Metropolitan District is surely one of the few governments anywhere whose two top chief executives were men of letters before becoming involved with politics. Gov. Ishihara Shintaro first captured the attention of the public by publishing a spectacularly successful novel while still a university student. Vice-Governor Inose Naoki, meanwhile, made his name as a non-fiction writer.
In connection with a new book to be published later this week, Mr. Inose has distributed online an article he wrote for the 24 November 1988 edition of the weekly Shukan Spa. The article describes how and why some of Japan’s holidays were selected when the new Constitution came into effect after the war. It also explains how and why the Japanese weren’t always the ones to select the dates of those holidays.
My quick translation of most of the article follows.
The Origin of Holidays and the Tenno System
Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).
Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.
The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.
The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.
A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.
The origin of Labor Day has not been taught in schools in the postwar period, so children think of it as a day of appreciation for their father’s daily efforts. But if that is the case, why isn’t 1 May—May Day—a holiday?
Culture Day on 3 November was known as the Meiji Setsu before the war. It is the birthday of the Meiji Tenno. During the Meiji period, it was known as Tencho Setsu (The Imperial Birthday). During the (following) Taisho period, the birthday of the Taisho Tenno was known as the Tencho Setsu, and the birthday of the Meiji Tenno was eliminated as a holiday. But the Meiji Setsu was brought back as a holiday soon after the Taisho Tenno died and the Showa period began.
The Law Regarding Citizens’ Holidays was promulgated on 20 July 1948. Of course, Japan was still an occupied nation under GHQ control. Provision was made for nine holidays at that time: New Year’s, Coming-of-Age Day, the Vernal Equinox, the Tenno’s Birthday, Constitution Day, Children’s Day, the Autumnal Equinox, Culture Day, and Labor Day. Of these, five were holidays related to the Tenno; only their names were changed. The Vernal Equinox and the Autumnal Equinox were originally known as the All Imperial Ancestors’ Day for the spring and fall respectively. The Tenno’s Birthday had been known as the Tencho Setsu. As we’ve already seen, Culture Day was the Meiji Setsu and Labor Day was the Niinamesai.
The author and politician Yamamoto Yuzo, who was a member of the upper house Culture Committee considering that legislation at the time, wrote with great sorrow the behind-the-scenes story about setting the date of Culture Day. According to his account, the committee placed the greatest emphasis on 3 November and wanted to make that Constitution Day. Their reason was that Japan’s new Constitution had been promulgated the year before on that day—3 November 1947.
As he wrote, “The Civil Information and Education Section (of GHQ) did not allow that, however. They thought 3 May would be a better choice for Constitution Day. It wasn’t long before the lower house approved 3 May as the date, making negotiations all the more difficult. But I did not give up. I thought the date the Constitution was promulgated rather than the date it came into force to be a more appropriate date. Considering the distribution of the holidays, the seasons, and the weather for each, I kept up the good fight for seven months.”
Why was GHQ so adamant? Yamamoto Yuzo explains that both the Americans and the Japanese had ulterior motives. He wanted to make the date for commemorating the Constitution the day it was promulgated rather than the day it went into force. The new Constitution was passed by the Diet and approved by the Privy Council on 29 October. He wanted the promulgation date to be 1 November and make that the holiday. But the Constitution was to come into force six months later, and that would mean it would coincide with May Day.
At that time, the United States was engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and did not want the date the new Constitution came into effect to overlap with the day commemorating laborers. Therefore, GHQ ordered that 3 November be made the date of promulgation.
The next dispute arose over whether to make Constitution Day the date of promulgation or the date of effectiveness. The Japanese old guard was certain that 3 November would be the date because it was the former Meiji Setsu. But GHQ, which was trying to promote democratization, thought that should be prevented and insisted the most suitable date for Constitution Day was the day the document came into effect.
I suspect there was perhaps one more reason that GHQ went counter to common sense and stuck to 3 May. That was the day the International Military Tribunal for the Far East—the Tokyo War Crimes Trial—held its first session in 1946. Surely they wanted the date to coincide with the first day of the ceremony that sat in judgment of militarism. They did not want anyone to ever forget the spirit of war renunciation in the new Constitution.
That’s why Constitution Day falls on 3 May, but there are also some strange circumstances involving 3 November. Culture Day was created as the result of a dispute between the Japanese forces of reform and conservative forces. Yamamoto Yuzo wrote: “Our task was to select holidays for the people, not select holidays for the Imperial Household.” This can be understood as a kind of declaration of defeat. The result of the effort to make 3 November Constitution Day was ultimately to give that day the nonsensical name of Culture Day.
In spite of Yamamoto Yuzo’s intent, Meiji Setsu survived, but ironically in a different form. In his later years, he recalled that he was criticized every year for the unfathomable day called Culture Day.
Ironically enough, 23 December, the birthday of the Kotaishi (Crown Prince—now the current Tenno), which would become a holiday sometime in the future, was the date Class A war criminal Tojo Hideki was executed.
- Inose Naoki
Afterwords: The last sentence above is the topic of Mr. Inose’s new book.
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