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Prince Akishino questions use of public funds on religious Imperial enthronement rites

A temporary hall for Daijosai, or the Grand Thanksgiving rite, in which the new emperor offers new rice to the gods for the first time with a prayer for an abundant harvest, is pictured here inside the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace in a file photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Nov. 21, 1990. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito, voiced his concerns to a top Imperial Household Agency official that using public funds to cover Imperial rites should be avoided, a source close to the agency has told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Prince Akishino stated his concern in reference to the "Daijosai," or Grand Thanksgiving rite, in which the new emperor will offer new rice to the gods for the first time with a prayer for an abundant harvest after he accedes to the throne next May. The rite is expected to take place from Nov. 14 to 15 next year inside the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace after Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30 and Crown Prince Naruhito accedes to the Imperial Throne on May 1. The government will incorporate the cost of the ritual in its fiscal 2019 draft budget.

Critics have pointed out that spending public funds on the Daijosai, which is highly religious, violates the principle of separation of religion and government as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Within the basic guidelines that the government decided upon this past March regarding ceremonies related to Imperial succession, it said that "it could not be denied that the ceremonies have a religious nature" but also "are public in nature in that they are important rites associated with the hereditary succession of the throne." As was the case when Emperor Akihito acceded to the throne, public funds allocated for public Imperial ceremonies will be spent on events relating to Crown Prince Naruhito's rise to the throne.

The Daijosai at the start of the Heisei era cost some 2.25 billion yen total, including the approximately 1.4-billion-yen spent on building a venue for the Daijokyu-no-gi, a central event within the Daijosai. According to those involved in the upcoming ceremonies, if similar rituals are carried out next year, the cost could possibly be much higher, taking into consideration inflation and other factors.

Ordinary Imperial rites are covered by funds allocated for the private living expenses of the Emperor and Empress, and the Crown Prince and his family. Public Imperial activities, meanwhile, are covered by public Imperial funds. The government plans to allocate a budget for the Daijosai from public Imperial funds, but Prince Akishino has expressed his concern about this plan.

In addition to making clear that he was worried about having massive amounts of public Imperial funds spent to cover the ceremony, he has asked whether it is possible to pare down the ceremony itself, so that the private living funds of the Imperial Family could be used to pay for the ceremony. The Imperial Family was allocated private living funds of 324 million yen for fiscal 2018.

Prince Akishino will be first in line to the throne once his brother, Crown Prince Naruhito, becomes emperor. A senior official from the Imperial Household Agency told the Mainichi Shimbun that they are not aware of Prince Akishino's concerns regarding the Daijosai.

"I'd like to welcome (Prince Akishino's concern) as an honest opinion of someone who will be the first in the line of succession," said Susumu Shimazono, a religious scholar and a professor at Sophia University who is well-versed in Imperial rites. "The use of public money for the Daijosai runs the risk of violating Article 20 of the Constitution, which states that 'the State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity,' and is ill-advised. I hope the government considers a diverse range of views and moves forward with ceremonies relating to Imperial succession with discretion."

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