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Japan has one of the oldest national anthems in the world. ‘Kimigayo’ is the country’s single-verse national anthem, based on the words of a classical Japanese waka poem written by an unknown author during Japan’s Heian period (794–1185).

As well as being one of the oldest known national anthems, it is also the world’s shortest, standing at just a single verse.

Who composed the Japanese national anthem?

It is unknown who wrote the lyrics but ‘Kimigayo’ first appeared as a poem in the poetry anthology Kokin Wakashū, published in ca.920. Irish musician John William Fenton set the lyrics to music when the poem was chosen to be Japan’s national anthem in 1869. However his melody was deemed to lack the solemnity needed for a national anthem so in 1880 composer Hiromori Hayashi, along with his son Akimori Hayashi and pupil Yoshiisa Oku, composed a new melody, although some elements of Fenton’s original remained

But this was not the end of the story. The German composer Franz Eckert then applied a Western-style harmony to the melody and today’s version was born. It was officially adopted as Japan’s national anthem in 1888.

What does Kimigayo mean?

The word "kimi"Refers to the Emperor and the words contain the prayer:" May the Emperor's reign last forever ". The poem was composed at a time when the emperor reigned directly over the people.

During World War II, Japan was an absolute monarchy that took the emperor to the top. The Japanese imperial army invaded many Asian countries. The motivation was that they were fighting for the holy Emperor.

Subsequently, after the Second World War, the Emperor became the symbol of Japan by the Constitution and lost all political power. Since then, several objections have been raised about singing "Kimigayo" as a national anthem.

However, at the moment, it continues to be sung at national festivals, international events, schools and national holidays.

History and controversies around the Japanese national anthem

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Photo WordPress

The melody for the Japanese national anthem today uses music composed by court composers Yoshiisa Oku and Akimori Hayashi, arranged by the German composer Franz Eckert in 1880.

Before ‘Kimigayo’ was completed, and adopted as Japan’s official anthem in 1888, a different melody had been proposed by Irish musician John William Fenton, who led a military band in Japan at the start of the Meiji period. Fenton’s version proved unpopular, so was never officially adopted.

‘Kimigayo’ with Eckert’s arrangement was the country’s official anthem until 1945, and even once parliamentary democracy was installed in the country following the Second World War, it remained in place as the de facto anthem when Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain on the throne.

When Japan passed the Act on National Flag and Anthem in 1999, ‘Kimigayo’ once again became enshrined as the country’s official national and imperial anthem.

The title of the anthem is usually translated as ‘His Imperial Majesty’s Reign’ and the short hymn really is about the worship of Japan’s emperor, wishing their reign to be a long and prosperous one.

As a result, it’s shrouded in controversy. Many in Japan and other Asian countries raise an eyebrow at the song’s association with militarism, and the virtual worship of the emperor encouraged by its lyrics.

As well as international sporting events like the Olympics, the song is used in schools and the Japanese government’s enforcement of teachers to respect the national anthem and flag of Japan has attracted controversy in recent times.

Teachers in Hiroshima in 1999, Osaka in 2010, and more widespread in 2011 and 2012 staged rebellions in which they refused to display the song or sing it, in spite of an order that teachers must respect the national song and flag in schools, or else risk losing their jobs. However, teachers unions and subsequent court proceedings have quashed any demonstrations against ‘Kimigayo’, deeming use of the song in schools as constitutional.

READ MORE: ONLY in JAPAN: Top Quirky Drinks You Should Try

The old version of Kimigayo

Until arriving at the current version, kimigayo had other previous versions with more stanzas, some had up to 3 parts, while the current anthem is only one part with 5 phrases. Its use changed between the years 1880, 1888 and 1999.

The composers of the music of the Japanese anthem was Hiromori Hayashi, Yoshiisa Oku. Below see how it is played in the score or cipher, along with the lyrics in hiragana.

What are the lyrics in Japanese?






Kimigayo wa

Chiyo ni yachiyo ni

Sazare-ishi no

Iwao to narite

Koke no musu made

Lyrics to the Japanese national anthem in English

May the reign of the Emperor

continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations

and for the eternity that it takes

for small pebbles to grow into a great rock

and become covered with moss.

Second national anthem of Japan

In addition to the Kimigayo National Anthem, we have another very popular national song called Umiyukaba [海行かば] whose lyrics are based on a poem chōka Ōtomo no Yakamochi no Man'yōshū (poem 4094), an anthology of Japanese poetry from the 8th century, played by Kiyoshi Nobutoki.

“Umi Yukaba”Later became popular with the military, especially the Japanese Imperial Navy. It became popular during and after World War II as well. After Japan surrendered in 1945, “Umi Yukaba” and others gunka were banned.

However, the ban by the occupying nation (USA) has been lifted and the song is now considered acceptable enough to be played publicly by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, considered the second national anthem that is also short.

Iconic symbols of Japan

Photo give me japan
Photo give me japan

There are many interesting customs and superstitions in Japanese culture. Most of them are very positive and concern good luck in people’s lives. Thanks to this, it is undoubtedly easier for the Japanese to overcome various challenges and problems, as they believe that they deserve happiness.

Japan - The Land of the Sakura Blossoms

In Japanese, Sakura (桜) means cherry blossom. As such, it is not without reason that Japan is called the Land of the Cherry Blossoms. Each year, in late March and early April, the trees sprout out thousands of spectacular pink buds. Therefore, the Japanese celebrate this occasion with a special custom called hanami (花見), which literally means “watching flowers”. At that time, hotel and airline ticket prices usually rise and many tours travel along the trail of blossoming cherry trees. This particular Japanese symbol reminds people of youth, the fleeting nature of life and it also indicates that the spring is coming soon.

Holy Mount Fuji

Fuji (富士山) is one of the most iconic symbols of Japan. It is not only a mountain but an active volcano as well. It is also the highest peak in the country (3766 m ASL). The fact that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List serves as a confirmation of its beauty. Unsurprisingly, despite the vastness of the terrain surrounding the mountain, as well as numerous tourist trails in its vicinity, it is rather difficult not to encounter other tourists in the area. During the peak of the tourist season, reaching the summit requires visitors to stand in extremely long queues, but the marvellous view after climbing up there is well worth the hassle. To the Japanese themselves, Fuji is a sacred mountain and every citizen of the Land of the Rising Sun should visit it at least once in their life. Whoever manages to climb to the very top may call himself a great man.

Origami - the art of folding paper

Similarly to the previously mentioned bonsai tree, Origami (折り紙) originated in China. However, once again, this art form became very popular in Japan and it is there that it started to truly flourish. Therefore, origami is strongly associated with the Land of the Cherry Blossoms. These amazing paper figurines, often arranged in an extraordinary manner, are one of Japan’s signature symbols. When assembling such paper shapes, one should never use scissors, glue or additional decorations. This is the actual phenomenon behind origami art - it is all about creating works of art using only one’s hands, paper and creativity. Special origami museums can also be found throughout Japan.

Samurai - a Japanese knight

The Samurai were ancient Japanese warriors who were completely devoted to their ruler. They were guided by honour and the unwritten bushidō (武士道 – the warrior’s path) code. They gained recognition through valour and enlightenment. They never parted with their main weapon - the katana, which symbolised their constant readiness to fight and in itself was the very soul of the samurai. These Japanese warriors are a symbol of courage, loyalty and persistence.

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