For 80 years, April 29th has been a holiday in Japan. From 1927 to 1988 it was the Emperor (Hirohito)’s Birthday. When he finally died, the holiday was kept and the name changed to Green Day, not after his favourite American rock band, but for Hirohito’s (alleged) love of nature. The present Japanese government, with its usual tin ear, listened to the Voice of the People (translation: its right-wing backers) and decided to scrap what had become a rather popular holiday (the equivalent of Arbor Day) and rename it Showa Day (after protests, though, they compromised and moved Green Day to May 4th, thereby getting rid of the dangerously leftie-sounding Citizen’s Day which used to hold that spot; confused yet?).
Why all the fuss? Well, when a Japanese Emperor ascends the throne, the name of his reign is given an inspirational title and the calendar year immediately starts again. So when Hirohito became emperor on December 25th, 1926, the year changed from Taisho (大正, or Great Righteousness) 15 (the year of his father’s reign) to Showa 1 (昭和元年), which lasted a week. Showa means “Enlightened Peace.” Well, people who know their dates know that Showa was a bitterly ironic choice since the Japanese spent the first 30 years of it living through brutal repression, looney military governments, vicious war and dire poverty. Granted, the next thirty years were a boom time, the Economic Miracle and all that, but there is considerable public opinion in Japan which feels that Showa took more than it gave, the Emperor got away with more than he should have, and that in the long run there wasn’t much to celebrate about it. The present era, Heisei, means “the Attainment of Peace” which is so oblique that most people don’t object to it, since they don’t really know what it means (2007 is Heisei 19, and all coins, stamps, newspapers, and official documents carry that date).
Since April 29th fell on a Sunday this year, everybody had Monday off as well. I took a walk through Nagai Park, and noticed a few booths and tents set up in one field (no evidence, of course – I’m thinking of starting a new blog entry category called Days I Forgot My Camera). Aging granolas, indie musicians and student activists (yes, there are a few still around) had set up an Anti-Showa Day display, complete with a small theatre tent showing a documentary about the Showa Emperor’s war responsibility, and posters and handbills condemning the celebration of such an era. Of course, the government says it is a time to celebrate Japan’s recovery from disaster, although there’s no mention made about who bears much of the responsibility for the disaster (you’d think the Americans just arrived out of the blue one day). From what I could guess from what little I could read myself or my friend could paraphrase for me from Japanese to English, the activists think the teaching of history is important, but the government is purposely encouraging people to look through the wrong end of the telescope, to remember good old days which never really existed. That kind of manipulation, they think, leads to a softening of Japan’s sixty-year-long anti-war stance, and conditions younger generations to accept any new militarism the government might be planning (Japan’s involvement in Iraq was very controversial here).
Although they had a valid point to make, and one that’s shared (off the record) by a good chunk of the population, I noticed that most of the holiday crowd at the park were gingerly avoiding the display. It was too blatant, too direct, too uncompromising (although quite festive – an old guy with clippers and a kitchen chair was giving haircuts to anyone who wanted one). And that frightens people off here. English-speaking countries are still getting over the sexual repression of the Victorian Era, but Japan in many ways is still getting over the Edo Period, which was, when you think of it, 250 years of martial law (when a peasant could be killed for hesitating to obey an order). Passers-by were a bit nervous because these folks were too openly questioning authority, so the activists ended up more or less preaching to 40 or so of the converted (and I guess that includes me). Still, if they made some passer-by at least look at the issue differently from how the tame media shows it, then their effort was worth it.
PS – May 2nd – Check out Psipook as he looks at it from another angle: at Japanese politicians’ tendency to shrink away from anything remotely political, even while they’re ear-hurtingly campaigning.