Flowers, holidays and dictatorships

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Higanbana – 彼岸花

The higanbana, is a Fall flower that blooms only for a short time, from the Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日 Shūbun no Hi) until the end of the week.   The higanbana is related to the amaryllis.

The last kanji (Japanese characters) of higanbana means flower (花).  The first two kanji (彼岸higan) refer to the week of the Fall Equinox.  During that week there are special celebrations in Buddhist temples.

The Higan

Buddhist temples celebrate the Fall equinox when day and night are equal.

The observance is a reminder of life’s impermanence.   Higan literally means ‘the other shore.’  This ‘shore’ is our everyday life.  The ‘other shore’ symbolizes nirvana after a practice of patience, morality, meditation, generosity, energy and wisdom.

The equinox is so important in Japan that the day is designated as a national holiday.  This year the equinox fell on Saturday, September 22.   The celebrations around the equinox have been a part of Japanese customs for over a 1000 years.  The tradition is kind of like the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), where families take flowers, incense and food and go to visit their deceased family members at the cemetery.


Leave it to politics to corrupt a perfectly nice day in September.

In 1868, following the toppling of the Tokugawa Shogun, the Meiji government (1868-1912) made efforts to stimulate allegiance for its new government led by the titular head, the emperor.  The Meiji government directed that the Equinox should be converted into a day to pay respect to past emperors and their family.  The government renamed the holiday Kōreisai (皇霊祭 – lit. emperor spirits ceremony).  Was the government just making a small request that the Japanese folk add their emperor to their family’s list of deceased?  Or was this simple decree, a more insidious political effort to fashion a mindless populace to follow their emperor anywhere, even into war?

I had trouble finding neutral information on this small issue.

I do not believe that early Meiji leaders such as Ito Hirobumi were deviously planning an international war or a super-nation.  The Meiji oligarchs looked for ways to help the new government survive.  In the early years, following the overthrow of Tokugawa , the Meiji leaders dealt with uprisings by samurai and protests from the disenfranchised.  In 1868, whether the new Meiji government would survive was still a question of history.

60 years after the deposition of the Shogun, super-nationalists would take power in Japan.  These usurpers led Japan to expansion and war.  The militarists realized the advantage of appropriating vestiges of the Tokugawa dictatorship: propaganda, censorship and an education system suffused with conservative, traditional ideals.  The despots retooled the institutions the Meiji government had used to maneuver through the first difficult years of modernization and democratization.  The nationalists turned Japan into a military dictatorship.

What an apt warning from history!


The United States of today and Tojo’s Japan and Hitler’s Germany are different.  In the 1920s,  Japan and Germany were embryonic democracies whose leaders and people had little skill molding their cultures to fit democratic institutions.   They didn’t have much time to appreciate the advantages of a liberal society.   Too soon after beginning the democratic experiment, the people became more concerned about making a living than defending a new fangled right to vote.  Democracy called for conversations, compromise and slow solutions to problems.   Having to deal with fear and deprivation spawned by the economic Depression in the 1930s, many Japanese and Germans were happy to return to the old autocratic governments instead of fighting for a new democracy they didn’t understand.

Be wary of the use of temporary oppression.  How benign that sounds…temporary oppression.  Oppression is oppression.  It is a malignancy.  Today some American politicians are comfortable with the suspension of human rights, i.e. phone tapping, incarceration without trial, and use of torture, as a temporary necessity to fight terrorism.

History would lead me to believe that it is dangerous to fiddle with freedoms.

But…back to our innocent red flower and the Equinox.

After WW II,  American Occupation officials were thorough in their search for signs of “emperor worship.”  Wanting to wipe out what was viewed as an ideology supporting the rise of extreme nationalism, the Americans insisted on the obliteration of the ‘worship’ of the emperor.  Little Shūbun no Hi could no longer be connected to the emperor and his ancestors.

On my calendar in 2012, this national holiday on September 22nd is now again labeled “Autumnal Equinox Day.”

I am happy for the Japanese.  They have recovered their day of thanksgiving for a good harvest, a day to meditate on the impermanence of life and a day to visit with loved ones who have moved on.

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2 responses to “Flowers, holidays and dictatorships

  • Magical Ms. M

    What a beautiful celebration. I have been yearning for such a moment. Autumn is a time when I turn inwards, preparing for the shorter winter days. I have amped up my own meditative practice and in my own ways, have honored the abundance of the harvest (apple pressing). There is less emphasis in the US on the temporary nature of life (we are not so much of a honor-the-dead society), but Dias de Los Muertos does bring some of that. I love fall, it’s colors, smells and feeling.

  • jamisonmichel

    A nice tapestry of holiday, history, and the natural world, Maureen.

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