Citizens’ groups gathered Wednesday to protest or express support for National Founding Day, the most controversial of Japan’s annual holidays.

The holiday, a resurrected version of Kigensetsu, was an invention of the Meiji government to commemorate the ascension of Jimmu, the nation’s legendary first Emperor, in 660 B.C. Meiji rulers hoped Kigensetsu would lend credibility to their regime and inspire patriotism nationwide.

Kigensetsu was abolished in 1948 because of its association with the emperor system and the excesses of nationalism before and during World War II, but it returned in 1966 as National Founding Day. At a gathering at Hibiya Kokaido Hall in Tokyo, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto called National Founding Day a meaningful holiday in which Japanese offer thanks to their ancestors for laying the groundwork for national development and pray for Japan’s future.

It is the duty of present generations to further the peace and prosperity Japan enjoys, and to create an environment where future generations can live without worry, he said. Hashimoto also stressed the importance of attempting to resolve such concerns as environmental problems and regional conflicts. He also pledged to make further efforts toward disarmament, nonproliferation of nuclear arms and cooperation with other countries for a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Meanwhile, at the Edo Tokyo Museum in Sumida Ward, labor unionists met for an annual rally to protest the holiday. Their group, the Forum to Safeguard the Constitution, Peace and Human Rights, believes celebrating such an “unconstitutional” holiday will lead Japan to revert to its prewar militarism.

“Feb. 11 is the only holiday not stipulated by the law concerning national holidays,” said Tsuruo Yamaguchi, a former Socialist Diet member. “This clearly shows how ambiguous the holiday is.” The forum aims to have the government take complete responsibility for Japan’s wartime aggression.

“Since new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation were announced last September to give the Self-Defense Forces greater military roles, we’re concerned about and opposed to Japan’s preparation of laws to better cope with military contingencies in areas surrounding Japan,” said Takashi Ikagawa, vice director of the forum. “Feb. 11 this year is a good opportunity for us to examine how such legislation concerning emergencies, peace, order and martial law were made in wartime Japan,” Ikagawa said.

Shinobu Oe, a professor emeritus at Ibaraki University, said, “Feb. 11 is closely related to emergency laws. On this day, the Meiji Constitution, which served as a legal ground for prewar and wartime emergency laws, was promulgated.”

The Committee to Celebrate the Foundation of Japan, a hardline nationalist group, held its celebration at Meiji Shrine Auditorium in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, drawing about 1,200 people. “Regrettably, the nation has become weak — as shown by the Peru hostage crisis, the slaying of a Kobe boy and a series of bankruptcies of financial institutions,” Chairman Shiro Odamura said. “It is high time we rebuilt the backbone of the nation in consideration of the national foundation spirit at the time of Emperor Jimmu’s accession.”

In a symposium at Tokyo’s Labor Square in Hachobori, Masanori Nakamura, a Hitotsubashi University professor of modern history, criticized groups that advocate Japan’s wartime responsibilities being downplayed in history textbooks. “It is impossible to have intellectual debate with revisionists … because they are not pursuing truth, but looking for a tool to twist history,” Nakamura said.

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