The two-day rite Daijosai, or the Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, in which Emperor Naruhito will offer new rice to the gods for the first time with a prayer for an abundant harvest and for the peace and happiness of the people following his accession to the throne this year, is being held on Nov. 14.
While there is a deep-rooted controversy over the compatibility between the massive state funds spent on this Imperial Household ritual of a highly religious nature and the principle of separation of religion and state guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan, the government has avoided full-scale discussions on the matter and opted to simply follow precedents.
The Daijosai is one of the ceremonies related to the Emperor's enthronement and the ritual is regarded as secretive and held behind closed doors.
In giving some consideration to the principle of separation of religion and state, the government made the Daijosai an Imperial Household event after the Chrysanthemum Throne changed hands from Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) to Emperor Akihito (currently Emperor Emeritus Akihito) in 1989, as opposed to the enthronement ceremony and other rites defined as part of the emperor's "acts in matters of state."
Yet the government decided to fund the Daijosai with palace-related expenses, which are allocated to the Imperial Family for their official duties, on the grounds that the ritual is held in connection with Imperial succession and is of a public nature. In this year's Daijosai, approximately 2.4 billion yen was spent to build the Daijokyu Halls, the setting for the Daijosai rite, and other ceremony-related expenses.
Following the previous Daijosai ceremony held in 1990, a series of lawsuits were filed against prefectural governors and other officials' use of taxpayer money to attend the rite, with plaintiffs arguing it violated the separation of state and religion.
The Supreme Court ruled that their attendance was constitutional, saying it fell within the scope of their courtesy, but stopped short of ruling the constitutionality of spending public funds for the Daijosai itself.
The Osaka High Court, meanwhile, pointed out that suspicions that the use of state expenses on the Daijosai and other events is unconstitutional "cannot be ruled out completely." Yet even today, it cannot be said the controversy has been legally settled.
Unlike when the era changed from Showa to Heisei with the sudden demise of Emperor Hirohito, the government had ample time to consider the matter after former Emperor Akihito announced his apparent desire to abdicate and before Emperor Naruhito's enthronement. However, the government did not hold in-depth discussions, apparently out of concerns about a possible backlash from the conservative wing -- the main support base of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- which attaches much weight to holding enthronement-related ceremonies in a traditional manner that has been passed down from the prewar era.
In November last year, Crown Prince Akishino (then Prince Akishino) raised questions about public funding of the Daijosai as an Imperial rite of a highly religious nature, causing repercussions in society.
Crown Prince Akishino stated that instead of spending massive amounts of money on the Daijosai, it is only natural to finance the rite in a realistic manner. He also argued that the inner court expenses, which are allocated to cover the Imperial Family's day-to-day expenses, should be spent on those ceremonies.
While Crown Prince Akishino cast serious doubt on the enormous public outlays in light of the separation of religion and state, the government has shown no signs of moving to review the ritual, though it has simplified a portion of the ceremony.
When the Daijosai was held in the early Heisei era, public opinion was sharply divided over the rite. This is apparently not the case for this year's Daijosai, but it is too premature to believe that the public is totally convinced about the event.
Certainly, it is important to keep up traditions, but if the government merely follows the precedents while leaving the issue of constitutionality of those events ambiguous, the distance between the Imperial Household and the general public could be left widening.