When it comes to national anthems, Japan’s “Kimigayo” is one of the shortest — but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. As the host country of the upcoming Summer Olympic games in 2021, Japan will have the opportunity to showcase the beauty of its anthem, as well as the cultural history that inspired it, to millions of people across the globe. So before the Games commence, here’s a quick rundown of Japan’s national anthem lyrics, what they mean, and the story behind them.
In addition to being the world’s shortest national anthem at only 11 measures, with one verse of lyrics, Japan’s “Kimigayo” (which translates to “His Imperial Majesty's Reign”) is also one of the oldest. Authored during the Heian period, which lasted from 794 to 1185, the song’s lyrics are the work of an unnamed poet following the customs of traditional Japanese literature.
Although the poem has multiple translations in English, per Classical FM, the lyrics — as translated into English — are: May your reign / Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations / Until the tiny pebbles / Grow into massive boulders / Lush with moss.
Meanwhile, the Japanese lyrics (as written in the Latin alphabet) are: Kimi ga yo wa / Chiyo ni yachiyo ni / Sazare-ishi no / Iwao to narite / Koke no musu made
The poem was originally a prayer for an emperor’s eternal reign, but nowadays, it’s nationally accepted that the emperor is a symbol for the unity of Japan. While the song itself is one of the oldest national anthems in the world, it wasn’t actually formalized as Japan’s official national anthem until the passage of the Act on National Flag and Anthem in 1999.
However, the anthem — like others around the world — has been controversial. Opponents claim the anthem recalls the nation’s imperial and militaristic past, including via its reverence of an imperial figure. In recent decades teachers have protested its mandatory inclusion in schools, along with the Hinomaru national flag, as an infringement on their constitutional right to the freedom of thought and expression.
Of course, Japan is far from the only country whose anthem is surrounded in controversy. In the United States, protests during patriotic anthems have been occurring since the early 1890s. In 2016, anthem protests saw notable resurgence as athletes began taking a knee during the anthem ahead of sports events in protest of America’s history of racism and violence.
Let’s face it: It’s fair to say that almost no national anthem comes without its controversy. But even with this conflict, the majority of Japanese citizens still regard the national anthem as an important part of their nation’s history and heritage — and a source of pride for the country during the Olympic Games in 2021.