The lawsuit filed by a group of more than 200 people against Imperial rituals to be held next year following the enthronement of the new Emperor brings back the question of government funding for such rituals in light of the constitutional separation of state and religion. It was the same question that was raised over the rituals performed nearly 30 years ago by Emperor Akihito following his enthronement. Now as he is set to abdicate next April and pave the way for the enthronement of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, the government plans to follow the precedent of the 1990 ceremonies, given that all similar suits filed against those rites were dismissed in courts. The question has not been entirely settled, however, as indicated by a recent remark by Prince Akishino, the Emperor’s younger son.

The rituals in question are the enthronement ceremony, to be held next October following the enthronement in May, and the Daijosai grand thanksgiving rite scheduled for November, both at the Imperial Palace. The plaintiffs in the suit filed with the Tokyo District Court earlier this month claim the rituals violate the separation of state and religion stipulated in the Constitution, and call for damages from the government and suspending the use of public funds to hold the rites.

The enthronement ceremony, as provided for under the Imperial House Law, is held for a new emperor to publicly declare his ascension to the throne. The Daijosai is the first annual Niinamesai harvest festival to be performed by a new emperor, who will offer new rice to his Imperial ancestors and to deities of heaven and Earth, while praying for peace and abundant harvests for the country and the people.

To prepare for Emperor Akihito’s abdication and enthronement of the new Emperor, the government decided in April that these Imperial rituals will be held in line with the precedents of the ones performed in 1990. But the question over these Imperial rites again came to the fore when Prince Akishino, who will become the first in line to the throne after the enthronement of his brother, effectively challenged the government decision for using state funds for the Daijosai rite. Speaking at a news conference last month, the prince questioned whether it is appropriate to cover the expense of a “highly religious” event with government funding, suggesting that the rite’s cost should instead be paid for with money used to fund the Imperial family’s private expenses.

For the 1990 ritual that followed Emperor Akihito’s enthronement the previous year, the government paid the ¥2.2 billion cost from the palace-related account after concluding the Daijosai is an “important ritual” linked to the enthronement of new emperors, and that while its nature as a religious rite cannot be denied, the ritual also has the nature of a public event linked to a succession to the throne. In response to Prince Akishino’s remark, the government has said that its plans to cover next year’s Daijosai expenses with public funding will not change.

The Supreme Court has not handed down a judgment on whether public funding for a Daijosai ritual violates the Constitution, whose Article 20 says the “state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” In a 1977 ruling on a lawsuit filed by residents of Tsu, Mie Prefecture, who disputed the use of public funds for a Shinto-style ceremony for constructing a public gym, the top court said that in view of the purpose and effects of the rite, the use of public funds is acceptable unless it is too closely linked to a specific religion. Based on that criteria, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the use of public funds by the governor of Oita Prefecture to attend the 1990 Daijosai did not run counter to the separation of state and religion, noting that the governor’s attendance was within the realm of social courtesy and the degree of connection to religion was within acceptable levels.

On the other hand, a 1995 ruling by the Osaka High Court on one of the suits filed against the 1990 Daijosai, while turning down the plaintiffs’ demands, said that the Daijosai clearly has the nature of a Shinto ritual and that suspicions cannot be outright dismissed that the use of palace-related money — as an act that might help promote state Shintoism — may violate the constitutional provision for the separation of state and religion.

The ritual performed in 1990 is said to have largely followed the style stipulated in the Imperial Household-related legislation that was enacted during the Meiji Era, when deification of emperors was promoted, and was abolished after the war. Whether it is appropriate to follow these precedents under the current Constitution, in which a reigning emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power,” should be subject to public discussion.

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