Editorials

Reiwa imperial rituals and the Constitution

Ceremonies and rituals related to the May 1 enthronement of Emperor Naruhito will continue until the end of the year. The series of imperial succession events from the abdication of now-Emperor Emeritus Akihito and the ascension to the throne by his elder son has been greeted with a positive public atmosphere welcoming the advent of the new Reiwa Era. More than 140,000 well-wishers visited the Imperial Palace last Saturday when the new emperor and empress greeted the public for the first time since the enthronement. There are issues concerning the traditional ceremonies and rituals that must be resolved, however, since questions persist over whether some aspects are congruous with the Constitution.

Key among the upcoming ceremonies and rituals are the enthronement ceremony to be held at the Imperial Palace in October — in which Emperor Naruhito will formally declare his ascension to the throne in front of domestic and foreign guests, including the heads of administrative, legislative and judiciary powers as well as diplomatic missions and ambassadors from other countries — and the Daijosai imperial family ritual in November.

While the enthronement ceremony will be held as part of the “matters of state” that the emperor is to perform as stipulated in the Constitution, the Daijosai — grand thanksgiving rite — is a private ritual of the imperial family. It is the first annual Niinamesai harvest festival performed by a new emperor, who will offer freshly harvested 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.

Due to the religious nature of the ritual, the government has decided not to hold the rite as a matter of state in view of the separation of state and religion called for by the Constitution, but its expenses — which will total ¥2.72 billion, according to the Imperial Household Agency — will be covered by government funding on the grounds that it is an important event linked to imperial succession.

The protocol of imperial ceremonies and rituals for the enthronement of the new emperor basically follows the precedent set when the emperor emeritus in 1989 took over the throne from his late father to become the first emperor to ascend the throne as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” under the postwar Constitution. And the proceedings of the rituals that marked the dawn of the Heisei Era, which ended with his abdication, essentially followed those performed under the imperial family system that was instituted during the Meiji Era.

Last December, a group of people from religious circles filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court, charging that state funding for the enthronement ceremony and the Daijosai rite runs counter to the constitutional separation of state and religion and calling for damages and a halt to the funding. Similar lawsuits were filed against the rituals for the imperial succession three decades ago, but those suits were rejected.

However, a 1995 ruling by the Osaka High Court, while turning down the plaintiffs’ demand for compensation and a halt to the funding, noted that Daijosai’s nature as a Shinto-style ritual is unmistakable, that its funding by the state could have the effect of promoting state Shintoism, and that therefore the suspicion that the funding might violate the separation of state and religion under the Constitution could not be dismissed outright.

Last November, Prince Akishino, who with the enthronement of his brother has now become the crown prince, questioned whether it is appropriate to cover the expense of the “highly religious” Daijosai 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. The government subsequently said it has no plans to change its decisions over the funding of the ritual.

In his first speech following his ascension to the throne, Emperor Naruhito pledged to “act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan.” Recent media opinion polls indicate that the system of the emperor as the “symbol” under the Constitution is supported by an overwhelming majority of the public.

Questions linger, however, over how to reconcile the long-running traditions of the imperial family and the ways of its rituals with today’s values and provisions under the Constitution. Since the emperor’s position as the “symbol” under the Constitution “derives from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power,” the government, at the beginning of the new era, needs to explore the ways of imperial rituals that will be widely understood and endorsed by the people today.