To the joy of some, and perhaps the surprise of others, next Tuesday is a one-off national holiday.
While some may happily take the day off, it is also the day when dignitaries from across Japan and the world will gather in Tokyo to witness a once-in-a-generation event — the declaration of an emperor’s enthronement.
With banquets, a parade and other examples of pomp and splendor also in the offing, the public will see plenty of imperial spectacles over the coming month.
The following are questions about what we can expect on the day, and the implications:
What is happening on Tuesday, Oct. 22?
It is the day when the Sokui no Rei, or Sokuirei (the Ceremony of Accession) — one of the biggest ceremonies pertaining to Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the chrysanthemum throne — will be held. Representatives from over 190 countries and organizations across the globe are expected to attend, as well as members of the government. The ceremony will see guests in attendance witnessing Emperor Naruhito’s declaration of his official enthronement.
But didn’t the emperor already succeed to the throne in May?
Yes, Emperor Naruhito succeeded to the throne on May 1, marking the change of the imperial era. However, the ceremonies that were conducted that day were simpler and meant to signify the inheritance of the throne immediately after his predecessor’s abdication. In contrast to this, the emperor will make an official declaration of his succession at the Sokui no Rei.
For the previous change of emperor, there was an almost two-year gap between the emperor’s succession to the throne and the Sokui no Rei.
So there are two separate ceremonies signifying his accession?
There are actually multiple ceremonies pertaining to the new emperor’s succession to the throne. Other than the Sokui go Choken no Gi (His Majesty’s First Audience Ceremony after the Accession) held in May and the Sokui no Rei happening next week, the Daijosai (Rite of Offering of New Rice after the Enthronement Ceremony) is planned for November, as are a number of visits to shrines across Japan. Sokui no Rei is arguably the most elaborate of the ceremonies, given the number of dignitaries coming from all over the world to witness the event.
So what can we expect on the day of the Sokui no Rei?
Guests in attendance will await the emperor’s entrance at the Pine Chamber of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will enter in full imperial robes, and then sit atop their respective thrones in a sign of their new status as emperor and empress. The emperor will then read out a statement declaring his accession to the throne, to which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will read a statement of congratulations in reply. Guests will then do a banzai salute, after which the emperor and empress will exit the room.
Who will be attending the ceremonies?
As well as the prime minister, Supreme Court justices and members of the Diet, there will be multitudes of foreign dignitaries in attendance on the day. Prince Charles will be attending from the U.K., while Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan will represent his country. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will attend on behalf of the United States. There was also much speculation over who would be in attendance from South Korea, amid heightening diplomatic tensions between the two countries over the past year. South Korea’s Blue House has announced that Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, who is known to be knowledgeable regarding Japan, will be attending.
What about the Daijosai?
The Daijosai will take place on Nov. 14 and 15. A Shinto ritual, the Daijosai is a much more secretive affair than the Sokui no Rei, with only a handful of officials allowed into the specially constructed structure that the emperor will pray in, as opposed to the fully public affair of the Sokui no Rei.
The emperor will dedicate offerings, such as newly harvested rice and sake, to the gods. The emperor will then also eat the offerings himself and pray for the prosperity and happiness of the people. The rite is religious in nature as it involves the emperor praying to deities, including Amaterasu Omikami, who he is mythically descended from.
How much is being spent on all of these ceremonies?
Over a whopping ¥16 billion is being spent in total for ceremonies related to the succession of the throne and changing of the emperor. Some ¥3.8 billion has been set aside by the National Police Agency for security, and about ¥5.1 billion will be spent by the Foreign Ministry to receive the foreign dignitaries who will be flying in to attend the ceremonies. The Cabinet Office has set aside ¥3.6 billion for ceremonies such as the Sokui no Rei and a special banquet to be hosted by Abe in celebration of the new emperor’s enthronement, while the Imperial Household Agency has requested ¥3.3 million for the Daijosai and other related events. The Defense Ministry is expected to spend ¥300 million in related fees as well.
But doesn’t that go against the idea of the constitutional separation between government and religion?
This has been a point of contention that has been raised time and again. There is currently a lawsuit going through court claiming that paying for rites such as the Daijosai with taxpayer money is unconstitutional. Similar lawsuits went through the courts following during the previous change of emperor in 1989, to which the Supreme Court ruled on three lawsuits that the rites were not unconstitutional.
The Constitution states that “the State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” Most of the ceremonies, including the Sokui no Rei, are religious to varying degrees by their very nature, given that the royal regalia, for example, is rooted in the myth that the emperor is descended from the Sun Goddess.
However, the Daijosai has especially strong religious overtones, as the emperor prays to the gods directly. The then-government during the previous succession admitted to the strong religious elements of the Daijosai and claimed that it would be handled as a separate imperial activity from events such as the Sokui no Rei. However, they also claimed that there is a public interest aspect to the Daijosai, as it is a traditional event related to the succession of the throne, and therefore justified the rite being funded by the Imperial Household Agency.
In a drastic change from the usual nonpolitical stance that the royal family tends to take, Crown Prince Akishino, the current emperor’s younger brother and next in line to the throne, said at a news conference last year that he believed the ceremony should be financed by the funds provided to the imperial family for personal use, “out of consideration for the relationship between religious rites and our Constitution.”
The imperial family has an annual budget derived from taxpayer money for their personal use, while funding from the Imperial Household Agency covers events and activities in the public interest, including the Daijosai.
The Japanese Communist Party has, for example, made clear their belief that the rites and ceremonies go against the fundamental principle of popular sovereignty and the separation of state and religion laid out in the Constitution, and does not intend to attend any of the events.
What kind of history do these ceremonies have?
The ceremonies have not necessarily been static over the course of the long history of the imperial family, and instead have changed and evolved over time. Some parts of the ceremonies — such as the Sokui no Rei in its current form — are rather created traditions that were put in place during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to strengthen a nationalistic identity centered around the imperial throne. As part of that change, the ceremonies’ Chinese or Buddhist elements were removed, Shinto elements were strengthened and the rituals and ceremonies were finalized into the forms we have seen over the past year.
What other events will we be seeing?
A large-scale parade, initially scheduled for after the Sokui no Rei ceremony, will take place on Nov. 10, with the emperor and empress being driven from the Imperial Palace to their residence in Akasaka in a convertible sedan. The festivities will also see the imperial couple host four banquets over the course of just over a week following the Sokui no Rei ceremony, to which foreign dignitaries will be invited.
Some 550,000 people are expected to be granted amnesty for their crimes. This figure is a drastic decrease from when Emperor Emeritus Akihito acceded to the throne, during which a total of over 2.5 million people were pardoned.
What does the throne look like?
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako will sit atop the takamikura and michōdai respectively. Both of the takamikura and michōdai are thrones inside octagonal structures placed atop elaborately decorated square daises. There are eight canopied pillars holding up a roof with gold and lacquerware decorations as well as gold-plated phoenixes. The throne itself is usually kept at the Kyoto Palace, but was carried to and reconstructed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo specifically for the Sokui no Rei ceremony. It will be available for public viewing for free in Tokyo from December to January, and Kyoto in March.