National | Emperor's Enthronement

With Emperor Naruhito's enthronement, traditional styles adapt to changing times

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff Writer

Emperor Naruhito will formally declare his ascension as Japan’s 126th monarch in front of about 2,000 leaders and representatives from over 170 countries and regions at the Imperial Palace on Tuesday.

The Sokuirei Seiden no Gi (enthronement ceremony) will represent the old tradition that has been carried on over 1,000 years, but at the same time, it will be closely watched by people around the world as the beginning of the new era led by a new generation of the imperial family.

Emperor Naruhito ascended the chrysanthemum throne on May 1 following the abdication of his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, who was the first to be enthroned as the symbol of “the state and of the unity of the people” under the postwar Constitution.

Mindful of the scars left by the war fought under the name of his father Emperor Showa, Emperor Emeritus Akihito during his reign spoke of the importance of peace in many occasions and was seen as a “people’s emperor.” Many expect that Emperor Naruhito will basically follow his path, but also adopt a new style that reflects the modern era.

“He shall largely follow the model provided by his father, the first emperor enthroned under the postwar Constitution. At the same time, he shall not be a carbon copy of his father — he will adopt various social issues as society changes, keeping the imperial house in tune with the trends of the time,” said Kenneth Ruoff, a professor of history at Portland State University and the author of the book “Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era” to be released by Harvard University Press in November.

Key ceremony

Tuesday’s Sokuirei Seiden no Gi is considered the most important among a series of enthronement-related ceremonies that started in May as the new emperor will officially proclaim his enthronement before many guests from Japan and abroad.

The ceremony at the Seiden State Hall will start at 1 p.m. in the Matsu no Ma state room, with the emperor announcing his enthronement from the 6.5-meter-high canopied throne, known as the takamikura. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will deliver a congratulatory message and lead guests in three banzai cheers to wish for the emperor’s longevity.

The emperor will wear a dark orange robe called Korozen no goho, the design of which dates back to the ninth century and is only worn by emperors for special ceremonies. The color of the robe is meant to mimic the color of the rising sun. Empress Masako will be dressed in a layered court kimono during the ceremony.

Though the ceremony adheres fundamentally to the old traditional style, the ritual has evolved over time.

Emperors formerly wore Chinese formal clothing for ceremonies, but adopted traditional Japanese attire after studying ancient customs during Emperor Meiji’s reign (1868 to 1912). The enthronement ceremonies for Emperor Taisho in 1915 and Emperor Showa in 1928 were conducted in Kyoto and were based on the Tokyokurei (imperial ordinance concerning the ascension to the imperial throne) promulgated in 1909 by Emperor Meiji.

When Emperor Emeritus Akihito took over the throne from his late father Emperor Showa in 1989, the government decided to modify the traditional imperial family rites to suit the spirit of the postwar Constitution.

One of the major changes was the attire then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu wore. Instead of traditional court dress worn by past prime ministers, Kaifu was dressed in a swallow-tailed coat. He also stood on the same platform as the emperor when leading the banzai cheers so as to avoid giving any impression that he was subordinate to the emperor.

The protocol of the ceremony for Emperor Naruhito will follow the precedent set by his father Emperor Emeritus Akihito.

Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s younger brother, his wife Crown Princess Kiko and other members of the imperial family will also wear traditional Japanese clothing, while other participants are expected to wear morning dress.

During the ceremony, various banners and spears will be planted and ceremonial officials will carry swords and bows. Drum and gong players will also take part in the ceremony. Guests will be seated in rooms and hallways surrounding the courtyard, with monitors set up to enable them to watch the rituals.

Breaking precedent

Just like how the enthronement ceremony has changed to adopt modern aspects, many changes were brought to the imperial family during the Heisei Era led by then-Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Midori Watanabe, a former producer for Nippon TV, who extensively covered the imperial family, remembers how she was surprised to see the changes in the imperial family traditions.

“When Emperor Showa and Empress Nagako went out, they always traveled with a huge entourage, and Empress Nagako used to walk several steps behind the emperor. But in the Heisei Era, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko always walked together side by side,” Watanabe recalled.

She also said when then-Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko went to Mount Unzen in Nagasaki Prefecture when it erupted in 1991 and visited local evacuation shelters to comfort victims, they only took a few officials with them.

“What was more surprising was that the imperial couple knelt down on the floor to talk to people at the evacuation centers; something that had never happened before. When I saw it, I really thought things have changed so much in the Heisei Era,” she said.

Watanabe said that Empress Emerita Michiko, who received a modern education and was active as the president of the students’ association while she attended the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and Emperor Emeritus Akihito together led the imperial household to change old practices and adopt to the new era.

Empress Emerita Michiko, born Michiko Shoda, daughter of former president of Nisshin Flour Milling Co., also broke precedents in many ways. She was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family. She also breastfed and raised children by herself instead of entrusting to the care of court chamberlains.

Such new practices have certainly been passed onto Emperor Naruhito, who married career diplomat Masako Owada. The couple is currently raising Princess Aiko by themselves.

Many experts expect that Emperor Naruhito will also inherit his father’s value of cherishing peace, and the remark made by then-Crown Prince Naruhito on his birthday in 2015 seems to back this expectation.

“Although I was born after the war and did not experience it, I think that today, where memories of the war have started to fade, it is important to look back in a humble way on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences of war and the knowledge of the course of history that Japan has followed, from the generation that experienced the war to those who have grown up without firsthand knowledge of it,” he said.

Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, who experienced the war firsthand as children, made a series of visits to the sites of fierce battles and devastation during the war, including Saipan, Peleliu Island in Palau and the Philippines, to pray for the war victims.

“Emperor Akihito was in a way taking on a burden of bitter legacy left by Emperor Showa. … He’s been to Okinawa many times to pray for the victims of war, but he never went to Yasukuni Shrine during his reign,” Watanabe said, referring to the shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Class-A war criminals alongside the souls of millions of Japan’s war dead.

“After all, the three main duties of the imperial household are to pray for peace, promote international exchanges and carry on Japanese tradition and culture,” she said, adding that these duties will continue to be carried on by the new imperial couple in the Reiwa Era.

Emperor’s role in Reiwa

Many predict that Emperor Naruhito, who was educated at Oxford University, and Empress Masako, who graduated from Harvard University, are likely to approach various issues in society from even more of an international perspective than their predecessors.

“Consider Naruhito’s interest in water: What make this so interesting is that water is not a pressing issue for Japan, as all Japanese have access to clean water. But water is a consuming issue for the billions of individuals around the world for whom accessing clean water is a daily challenge,” said professor Ruoff of Portland State University.

The emperor, while he was still the crown prince, served as honorary president of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation from 2007 through 2015, and was internationally active in trying to solve this global issue.

“Although it is too early to conclude this with certainty, it is likely that in the same way that his father and mother devoted much of their reign to lending their prestige to the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, (Emperor) Naruhito intends through the focus on water to lend his prestige to some of the most vulnerable members of global society to try to make a difference in their lives,” Ruoff said.

Information from Kyodo added
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