Emperor Naruhito performed from Thursday evening a centuries-old Shinto thanksgiving ceremony known as the Daijosai, the last of the major succession rituals following his enthronement in May. The state-funded rite has stirred controversy for its religious aspects.
The Yukiden Kyosen no Gi event started at 6:30 p.m. and lasted for about three hours.
It was followed by the Sukiden Kyosen no Gi rite, which started around 12:30 a.m. Friday in the Sukiden hall, built for his once-in-a-lifetime event along with dozens of other temporary buildings on a 6,500-square-meter plot of land.
That ritual was conducted with newly harvested grain from Kyoto Prefecture.
The Sukiden Kyosen no Gi ended at around 3:15 a.m.
Guided by ceremonial officials bearing small torches, the 59-year-old emperor, clad in a white robe,entered the Yuki Hall — part of the gigantic Daijokyu Halls specially constructed on the Imperial Palace grounds for the ceremony.
For the first time, the emperor offered newly harvested rice to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, the mythical ancestress of the imperial family, as well as the deities of heaven and Earth. He partook of it himself to give thanks and pray for the peace and prosperity of Japan.
A total of 510 people, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, lawmakers, prefectural governors and other representatives, observed the first part of the rite from nearby. Empress Masako, dressed in a white layered court kimono, also paid tribute at another hall in the compound.
Although details of the main ceremony were not disclosed, scholars have said the emperor, with the help of two maidservants and using bamboo chopsticks, placed food offerings, including rice, salmon, abalone and sweet chestnuts, from boxes made of oak leaves onto over 30 dishes more than 500 times before reading out a message to the ancestral gods and deities. In the message, He thanked them for an abundant harvest and prayed for a peaceful country.
A theory put forward by folklorist Shinobu Orikuchi (1887-1953) that the emperor unites with gods on beds prepared inside the sanctum halls drew attention when the last ceremony was held in 1990 for former Emperor Akihito, but the Imperial Household Agency has dispelled that view.
Security was tight, with police standing guard and a number of security vehicles positioned around the palace.
About 150 people attended a rally held by a group opposed to Japan’s imperial system in front of Tokyo Station, which is near the palace, according to the organizer.
“There are so many people affected by (recent) typhoons. It’s wrong that a lot of tax money has been poured into the Daijosai when we’re only halfway done with rebuilding,” said one participant.
“The imperial system is wrong because it makes a distinction between those born noble and not. I want people to know that some are opposed to it,” said a 67-year-old freelance editor.
The 1990 Daijosai faced greater threats, with extremist groups opposed to the imperial system carrying out nearly 100 attacks across the country around the time of the ritual and the preceding Sokuirei Seiden no Gi ceremony for proclaiming the emperor’s enthronement before international guests. That event is the equivalent of a coronation.
The halls will be taken down after a public viewing period from Nov. 21 through Dec. 8.The emperor has taken part in a series of ceremonies since he ascended to the chrysanthemum throne on May 1, including last month’s Sokuirei Seiden no Gi ceremony to proclaim his enthronement before international guests, as well as Sunday’s parade in central Tokyo, both held as state occasions.
The Daijosai, the first annual Niinamesai harvest festival performed by a new emperor after his accession to the throne, dates back at least to the seventh century, although it had a hiatus of about 220 years due to a war starting in 1467 and financial difficulties. It was revived in 1687.
Given that it is a Shinto rite, the Daijosai has been subject to criticism for it being a violation of the principle of the separation of religion and state. The concerns were first raised at the time of the previous ceremony performed by Emperor Naruhito’s father, former Emperor Akihito, in 1990, the first time the event was held under the postwar Constitution. An Osaka High Court ruling in 1995 said doubts remain over whether government financing of Shinto-linked rituals breaches the Constitution.Last year, Crown Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito, questioned whether the state should finance the “highly religious event,” saying he had suggested using the imperial family’s private funds instead. But the prince said his proposal was rejected by the government, which maintains that the public nature of the ceremony held to mark imperial succession warrants it being state-financed.
The government, therefore, will pay for the thanksgiving ceremony from palace-related expenses, or a budget to cover the imperial family’s official duties.
The total cost of the elaborate ritual has yet to be finalized, but the construction-related fees for some 30 buildings in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace grounds, including costs to dismantle the compound, stand at about ¥2.44 billion.
In the past, the Daijosai’s style varied, sometimes held in a simple hut, but was made into a massive ceremony during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Japan tried to play up the divinity of the emperor.
The Meiji style was compiled into the 1909 Tokyokurei order covering the formalities of the ceremony.
Although the directive was abolished after World War II, former Emperor Akihito followed the style for his 1990 Daijosai rite and sowill Emperor Naruhito.
But many measuresare also taken to adjust the ceremony to modern times and reflect the wishes of Emperor Naruhito to minimize the financial burden on the public.
The size of the Daijokyu Halls was reduced by about 20 percent compared to previous editions, and buildings other than the main halls were constructed with regular logs rather than the conventional unpeeled logs.
The roofs of the main halls were also switched from a thatch material to shingles in order to cut costs and reduce the time needed for construction. The timber used in the Daijokyu Halls will be recycled after the ceremony as much as possible, as will the food offerings delivered from each prefecture.
In the ceremony, rice specially cultivated for the rite in Tochigi and Kyoto prefectures — representing the country’s east and west —is set to be offered at the Yuki and Suki halls, respectively. The locations for special rice cultivation were determined by divination using turtle shells.
Rice and millet as well as fruits, vegetables and seafood will also be offered from across Japan. Special hemp fabric from Tokushima Prefecture and silk cloth from Aichi Prefecture will also be provided.
Out of concerns over the constitutional principle that calls for the separation of state and religion, the Imperial Household Agency purchased the food and other items rather than accepting them as tributes.
In order to reduce waste, the agency also decided not to follow a tradition of burying the food underground after the ceremony. Instead, the food offerings will be consumed, they said.