With school graduation season past and the start of a new school year already in full swing, any teachers in Japan reading will probably be familiar with the Japanese national anthem, “Kimigayo.” Even if you don’t work in a school or university, all the fanfare around the new emperor, as well as this year’s upcoming Rugby World Cup means that you’ve most likely heard, or will hear, at least a snippet of its solemn melody right about now.
Short and slow, Kimigayo is simultaneously one of the oldest and youngest national anthems in the world. It’s also one of the most controversial. Heavy with a mixture of national pride, guilt, coercion, and conflicting influences, Kimigayo is an absolutely fascinating piece of music.
Let’s take a look at what makes these 11 bars (and just under a minute) of national symbolism tick.
What do the lyrics in Kimigayo mean?
Line 1 – 君が代は
Let’s start with the fundamentals. We’ll go line-by-line, starting with the first, most famous, and controversial:
君が代は = **Kimi ga yo ha = May your reign**
Originally, the first line read “Waga kimi ha” — “My lord” — but this was changed a few years later to its current form. It’s also been translated as “My lord’s reign.” There remains debate about who, exactly, “Kimi” is.
In the Heian period (794-1185) when the poem was written, “Kimi” would generally refer to one’s lord, but the emperor himself was often called “Okimi“ (meaning “Great Lord”) in earlier times.
Given that the Heian period was about infusing modern poetry with ancient influences, it’s far from settled whether or not this poem directly addresses the emperor. During the Edo period (1603-1868), “Kimi” would have referred to the shogun rather than the emperor, but this would switch formally with the founding of the Empire of Japan in 1868.
This etymological quandary caused much debate during the passing of the 1999 Act on National Flag and Anthem, which made Kimigayo the official national anthem. It was eventually decided that “Kimi” does refer to the emperor, but the emperor as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, and whose position is derived from the consensus-based will of Japanese citizens, with whom sovereign power resides,” according to then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, as cited by the Japan Policy Research Institute.
代 (yo) has several meanings, as you’ll also see in the next line. In this poem, the first yo is almost always translated as “reign,” but the kanji and word itself can also refer to generations and other such spans of time. Historically, Kimigayo seems also to have been sung as a wish for the long life of one’s guests and other non-lordly people of honor. The “lord” meaning is the most prevalent, so we’ll be focusing on that for this article.
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