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Jan. 1 ascension plan came 'out of blue' for Imperial Household Agency

Officials at the Imperial Household Agency were rattled by recent media reports that the government is considering setting Jan. 1, 2019 as the start of a new era under the new emperor, before full Diet discussions over Emperor Akihito's abdication issue had even begun.

"It's a bolt from the blue. We haven't heard anything about it," said an Imperial Household Agency official, after the news broke on Jan. 10 on the possible start of a new era at the beginning of 2019.

On Jan. 17, Vice Grand Steward Yasuhiko Nishimura told a press conference that it would be "difficult" for Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend to the Imperial Throne on New Year's Day of 2019. His comment represents the Imperial Household Agency's wariness over the rapid development of the issue, in which the possible enthronement day is set in conjunction with the change of the era name.

The agency cited as reasons for dismissing the New Year's Day enthronement plan a multitude of Imperial Household events traditionally held on the day. One such ritual, called "Shiho-hai," has been held from 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 1 every year. During the ceremony, the Emperor prays for peace for the nation and a good harvest, among other wishes. The ritual used to be held in a garden of the Shinkaden hall attached to the Three Palace Sanctuaries in the Imperial Palace, and since 2012 it has been held at the Imperial Residence.

The ceremony is followed by "Saitan-sai," in which the Emperor is to pay respects at the Three Palace Sanctuaries on New Year's Day. In recent years, a representative of Shoten-shoku (the Division of Rituals) -- which is an inner-court organization responsible for ritual ceremonies of the Imperial Family -- performs the ritual on behalf of the Emperor in order to reduce his burden.

After these ceremonies, the Emperor attends the New Year Reception, a state event, in which he along with the Empress receives New Year greetings from other Imperial Family members, the prime minister and other Cabinet members, the heads and vice heads of both houses of the Diet, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and other officials.

Meanwhile, the enthronement of a new emperor is entailed by a variety of ceremonies and events spanning a long period, including a ceremony that is assumed to take place on the enthronement day as part of a state event.

Following the demise of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa), the current Emperor ascended to the throne on Jan. 7, 1989. That same day, the accession ceremony called "Kenji-to-Shokei-no-gi" took place, in which Emperor Akihito inherited the Imperial Regalia and the State and Privy Seal.

"It is not a matter of which event should be prioritized over the other, between the Imperial succession ceremony and the New Year's Day rituals," said a source close to the Imperial Household Agency, adding, "It is just unrealistic for the (new) Emperor to perform 'Kenji-to-Shokei-no-gi' on top of 'Shiho-hai' and 'Saitan-sai' upon his enthronement on New Year's Day."

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