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Emperor Akihito to take part in last harvest festival before abdication

Emperor Akihito performs the Niiname-sai harvest festival at the Shinkaden inside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Nov. 23, 2013, in this photo provided by the Imperial Household Agency.

TOKYO -- Emperor Akihito will attend his last Niiname-sai harvest festival at the Imperial Palace to pray for abundant crops on the evening of Nov. 23 before his abdication scheduled for next spring.

Although the proceedings are not open to the public, those familiar with the matter suggest that Emperor Akihito has annually conducted the ritual following careful preparations. The Emperor had always considered being "with the people" when taking part in the festival, which is the most important ritual ceremony of the Imperial Palace.

Niiname-sai is performed at the Shinkaden inside the Imperial Palace. There are two rites, "Yoi-no-gi" in the evening from 6 p.m. and another "Akatsuki-no-gi" later from 11 p.m. Each of the rites continues for about two hours without a heater. Only torchlight illuminates the cold and silent space.

The Emperor purifies himself by bathing and puts on a robe called "Gosaifuku" made of white silk. He then offers new crops along with other tributes to the ancestral and other gods. He eats some of the crops himself after reading aloud Shinto prayers to give thanks for the rich harvest and prays for peace for the nation. Crown Prince Naruhito waits near him.

Emperor Akihito continues to sit up straight with his legs folded under him for the entire ceremony, while following procedures passed down from previous emperors. The Emperor has taken part in the ritual for a shorter length of time since 2009 when he turned 75, and has attended only the evening rites from 2014. However, the shortened duration does not mean a considerable reduction in the burden of the Emperor, including time spent on preparations.

According to those familiar with the rite, Emperor Akihito keeps working hard to sustain the motivation and physical strength needed to conduct ritual ceremonies. The Emperor trains himself before the Niiname-sai by sitting in the same posture as he will during the rites, such as when watching television and when joining meetings. A former close aide said the Emperor "tries to prevent evil thoughts that could be caused by the numbness in his feet."

The rice offered at the ritual is a mix of crops grown by farmers from each prefecture and grains that the Emperor grew himself in a paddy field inside the Imperial Palace. Emperor Akihito usually arranges a face-to-face meeting and engages in conversation with the growers of the rice from various areas and did so in late October this year at the Imperial Palace. He asked the producers questions including how the crops were this year.

An 81-year-old man delivered about 1.5 kilograms of rice with his wife from the Kinki region in western Japan. Emperor Akihito is quoted as telling the man, "You must have had a hard time because of so many typhoons." The man said he was touched by the Emperor who "looked us in the eyes while he spoke to us."

A close aide said that he senses Emperor Akihito's strong will to learn about society as a symbol of the state. The official assumes that the Emperor believes he needs to get to know his people in order to pray for peace for the nation. "His Majesty's interaction with people from various fields must be reflected in the prayers." Crown Prince Naruhito, who is set to become the next emperor, will perform the ritual ceremonies of the Imperial Palace from May 2019 onwards.

(Japanese original by Nao Yamada, City News Department)

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