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Gov't looks to avoid controversy, advance plans for Imperial enthronement rites

A temporary hall for the 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)

The government on Oct. 12 set up a committee headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to handle events relating to the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito next year following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito. Officials are now preparing to hammer out the finer details of the ceremonies in light of past precedents, though the issue of simplifying some events looks likely to be brought to the discussion table.

It has already been decided that related ceremonies will be based on those that marked the switch to the Heisei era in early 1989. As the previous ceremonies were held under the postwar Constitution of Japan, which defines the emperor as a symbol of the state, the constitutionality of those events is not likely to become a major issue of debate.

At the first meeting of the ceremony implementation liaison headquarters, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga instructed the officials from the Cabinet Secretariat, Imperial Household Agency, National Police Agency, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government bodies to prepare thoroughly.

"While being based on the Heisei (events), the ceremonies need to match the current times. The issues to be considered are diverse, from security to the receiving of foreign delegates and medical assistance for people at the ceremonies," he said.

Details of the ceremonies next year are due to be worked out by the end of this year to meet the deadline for compiling the fiscal 2019 budget.

Ceremonies that are to be held again next year include "Kenji-to-Shokei-no-gi," the accession ceremony to inherit the imperial regalia, which will take place on May 1, and the Sokuirei-Seiden-no-gi ceremony to proclaim the enthronement and to receive felicitations of representatives from home and abroad, to be held on Oct. 22. Some points of contention remain, however -- such as where the prime minister will stand in the Sokuirei-Seiden-no-gi ceremony. Before World War II, the emperor was held as a living god, so the prime minister called out "Long live the emperor" from the garden outside the venue. In the ceremony marking the start of the Heisei era, then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu instead spoke in the same Matsu-no-Ma room where the Emperor was. However, the Emperor's position upon the raised Takamikura throne, an elaborate throne based on a Japanese mythological descent from heaven, meant that the prime minister had to look up to him. This raised questions from the perspective of the Constitution's stipulation that sovereign power resides with the people.

Nobuo Ishihara, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview in April this year that there were time restrictions with the previous ceremonies, held after the demise of the Emperor Showa (known in life as Emperor Hirohito). As a result, officials weren't able to consider every detail of the ceremonies, and therefore made minimal changes to ceremonies held under the prewar Meiji constitution.

With regard to cost, questions have been raised over the use of public funds in the "Daijosai," or Grand Thanksgiving rite, from the perspective of the separation of religion and state. In this ceremony, the new emperor offers new rice to the gods with a prayer for the well-being of the people. Last time, officials from a committee preparing for the enthronement determined that it would be difficult to hold the rite as a state event. However, Imperial funds used for the Imperial Household's public activities went toward the ceremony on the grounds that it was of a public nature. To continue this precedent, the Imperial Household Agency on Oct. 12 established a committee to prepare for the Daijosai and other events. The Abe administration apparently wants to avoid debate over the constitutionality of the ceremony, which could undermine its power ahead of the House of Councillors election slated for next summer.

-- Simplification of events

Meanwhile, simplification of related rites has emerged as an issue. Imperial Household Agency head Shinichiro Yamamoto, who spoke at the committee launched on Oct. 12, suggested that the style and number of banquets held as part of "Kyoen-no-gi," a ceremony to celebrate the accession of the new emperor, should be considered. For Emperor Akihito's enthronement, seven sit-down feasts were held over four days, with some 2,900 people attending. Participants included both foreign guests and representatives from the private sector. Three banquets were also held for the Daikyo-no-gi ceremony, an event inviting participants from the Daijosai rite.

Yamamoto further suggested that an existing facility be used for the Sokuirei-Seiden-no-gi enthronement proclamation ceremony, limiting the number of attendees, to handle the possibility of bad weather. Last time about 2,200 people from Japan and overseas attended, and temporary seating was set up outdoors to handle the large number of participants.

Cabinet Secretariat records show that the cost of these ceremonies and other related expenses including for security reached approximately 12.3 billion yen. The Daijosai rite cost about 1.8 billion yen. This included 1.4 billion yen on the construction of a facility that was torn down soon after the ceremony.

In August, it emerged that 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 the Daijosai rite should be avoided.

Last time in the Shukuga-Onretsu-no-gi ceremony, the procession to show the new emperor to the people of Japan, an open-top Rolls Royce was used. The same vehicle was used in the parade celebrating the marriage of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako in June 1993, but it was deregistered in 2007 in light of maintenance outlays. New parts would be required to run the vehicle again, but the cost of restoring it could be high.

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