Prince Akishino’s recent remark questioning the government decision to use state funds for a key Imperial family ritual following the ascension of the new emperor next year may rekindle the discussion over separation of state and religion under the Constitution in connection with Shinto-linked Imperial rituals. The statement by the prince — who will be the first in line to the throne after his elder brother, Crown Prince Naruhito, becomes emperor in May — has raised some eyebrows since the emperor “shall not have powers related to government.” But that aside, the nation indeed needs to think what would be the appropriate form of the rituals performed by emperors as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” as defined by the postwar Constitution.

Speaking in a news conference ahead of his 53rd birthday on Friday, Prince Akishino, the younger son of Emperor Akihito, questioned whether it is appropriate to cover the expense of a “highly religious” event with state funding, referring to the Daijosai grand thanksgiving rite, to be held at the Imperial Palace in November 2019. The Daijosai is the first annual Niinamesai harvest festival to be performed by a new emperor following his accession to the throne. A new emperor offers new rice to the Imperial ancestors and to deities of heaven and Earth, while praying for peace and abundant harvests for the country and the people.

Citing the questions surrounding religious rites and the Constitution, which prohibits the state and its organs from engaging in any religious activity, the prince said he thinks that the Daijosai expenses should be paid for with money used to fund emperors’ private expenses. He thus effectively challenged the Cabinet decision last April to cover the Daijosai expenses from public “palace-related expenses” used for the Imperial family’s official duties such as ceremonies and state banquets — given the event’s religious but public nature.

The Daijosai rite that Emperor Akihito, who is to abdicate at the end of next April to pave the way for his son’s ascension to the throne, held in 1990 following his own enthronement the previous year was the first one held under the postwar Constitution. The Cabinet decision in April effectively follows the government’s position over the 1990 ritual.

Ahead of the 1990 ritual, the government determined that the Daijosai is an “important ritual” linked to the enthronement of new emperors that carries over the long tradition of the Imperial family, and that even though it cannot be performed as a “matter of the state” because its nature as a religious rite cannot be denied, the Daijosai has the nature of a public event in that it is linked to a succession to the throne, which is defined by the Constitution as “dynastic.” On such grounds, the government spent the event’s ¥2.2 billion expenses from the palace-related account.

Lawsuits were filed over the 1990 Daijosai, charging that the use of public money for the Imperial family ritual was illegal in view of the separation of state and religion under the Constitution. While all of such lawsuits were eventually dismissed, a 1995 ruling by the Osaka High Court said that suspicions could not be flatly dismissed that paying for the ritual with public money, since it might lead to assisting and promoting state Shintoism, may violate the separation of state and religion.

Prince Akishino said he was opposed to the use of public money to cover the expense of the 1990 Daijosai and that he still has doubts about that decision now. He said he expressed his opinion to the chief of the Imperial Household Agency but that the agency chief, Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto, would not listen to him — in what sounded like unusually candid criticism of the government by a key member of the Imperial family.

The Constitution says, the “emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state” as are provided for in its text — for which the advice and approval of the Cabinet will be required — and “shall not have powers related to the government.” Remarks by Imperial family members that relate to government policy and decisions raise questions in connection with that constitutional principle — a question that was also raised when Emperor Akihito indicated his wish to retire — even though abdication is not provided for under the Imperial House Law — in a televised message in August 2016, which effectively prompted the government to draft one-off special legislation paving the way for his abdication.

That question aside, Prince Akishino’s remarks over the Daijosai ritual raises a valid point that merits public discussion in connection with Imperial family rituals. The government often follows precedents in these matters, but the issue of the adequate forms of Imperial rituals held by emperors as the symbol of the state should be more broadly discussed.

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