An Imperial break from tradition

The recent announcement that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will be cremated when they die and that their mausoleums will be smaller than those of their predecessors in modern Japan reportedly reflects the Imperial couple’s wish to minimize the impact of their funeral rites on people’s lives. The government needs to follow up by considering plans for a state-run funeral that will be appropriate for the Emperor’s position as “symbol of the State and the unity of the people” under the postwar Constitution, and take into consideration ordinary citizens’ general sentiment about what funerals should be like.

When Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, died in 1989, his funeral rites basically followed the rules set by a prewar law. The Imperial Household Agency had been considering the ways of burial for the current Emperor and Empress after the Imperial couple expressed their wishes to be cremated in April 2012.

The cremation of the Imperial couple will mark a break from the tradition of interment, which was used for about 350 years — from the early Edo Period until now. The ways of Imperial funerals had undergone changes before that. While emperors in ancient times were interred in giant mausoleums, Emperor Jito (645-703) became the first emperor to be cremated — presumably due to the influence of Buddhism. Emperors were either buried or cremated for centuries after that, but cremation was the norm from the mid-Muromachi Period until Emperor Gokomyo was interred in 1654.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko had reportedly asked the Imperial Household Agency to consider their funerals in ways that fit the current times. Under the plan announced by the agency on Nov. 14, the mausoleums for the couple will be built side by side in the Musashiryo Imperial Cemetery in Hachioji in western Tokyo on an area about 80 percent of the space for the burial grounds of Emperor Showa and Empress Kojun combined.

It is believed to be only during the ancient times and after the Meiji Restoration that giant mausoleums were built for emperors. The prewar law on Imperial funerals and burials set specific sizes of mausoleums for members of the Imperial family depending on their status. The government after the Meiji Restoration sought to rally the nation around the Emperor, and Imperial funerals were performed in ways that demonstrated the authority of the Emperor and other members of the Imperial family.

That law was abolished after World War II, and today there are no detailed legal rules that set Imperial funeral proceedings. The Imperial Household Agency plans only concern the Imperial family rites and the government will need to separately consider plans for the Emperor’s funeral, which will be performed as an act of the state. Rather than just follow what it did for the funeral of Emperor Showa, the government should consider appropriate rites that, while honoring the Imperial family tradition, reflects the Emperor’s status under the Constitution.