EMPEROR AKIHITO’S ABDICATION IS GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO CULTIVTE BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF JAPAN’ TRADITIONS
With the abdication of Emperor Akihito slated for next April 30, he and Empress Michiko have been busily engaged in official activities across the nation these past few months. During a rainy garden party held at the Imperial Palace on November 9—the last to be hosted by the imperial couple—they shared a plastic umbrella as they walked past some 2,500 guests, stopping every now and then to greet them with caring words and gestures. The media have been covering the couple’s activities using the word “last” prominently, such as “the last royal visit to this region” or “the last attendance with the emperor and empress together.”
It is only a few months now until the emperor, who is 85, will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito (58), his eldest son. A new era is approaching rapidly.
The royal succession is an occasion far more important to Japan than the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. As an expression of our national character, a change of era is always a significant turning point for our country. It will be a golden opportunity to give a favorable impression of Japan to the large gathering of foreign heads of state invited to attend the abdication ceremony. Somehow, however, I feel our politicians, media, and public are not taking as much note of the era change as I had expected. I may be worrying too much, but I just don’t sense the enthusiasm I had hoped for to use this coming event as an opportunity to cultivate a better understanding of Japanese history and culture at home and abroad.
The Japan Policy Center, a private think tank which advises pro-government parliamentarians on policy issues, recently published a timely 60-page booklet entitled Understanding the Enthronement Ceremony and What Follows (hereafter, “the Booklet”)—a very concise and pertinent explanation of what the imperial family has meant to the Japanese people dating back more than 2,600 years. I will explain the gist of the Booklet below.
On February 24, the government will perform a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s accession to the throne. A series of commemorative events will follow, culminating in the April 30 abdication ceremony called Taiirei Seiden no Gi.
Because it will be the first abdication in Japan since 1817, when the 119th Emperor Kokaku gave up the throne, the present Imperial House Law is devoid of any rules regarding pertinent ceremonies to mark an abdication. To fill the gap, the government has created new national rituals based on precedent. The two main pillars of the new rituals are “the prime minister’s message expressing the nation’s gratitude to the emperor” and “the emperor’s words” in response to the prime minister’s message.
Forces Critical of Imperial Household
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will dedicate the people’s feelings of gratitude, to which Emperor Akihito will respond with the sentiments of an emperor who is stepping down. Traditionally, an emperor’s words on such an occasion were called Senmyo or “the Imperial Edict,” constituting the important nucleus of the abdication ceremony. Today, however, they are called simply the emperor’s o-kotoba, or just his “words.”
On May 1, after Emperor Akihito’s abdication is officially announced, a state-sponsored Sokurei no Gi enthronement ceremony will be held for Crown Prince Naruhito who will ascend to the throne as the 126th emperor. The events commemorating his enthronement will be broadly broken down into two components—one to be held on the same day, and the other about a half year later, sometime next fall.
The two events that immediately follow the enthronement are: the Kenji tou shoukei no Gi or the “inheritance ceremony of Kenji and other items,” and the Choken no Gi or the “rite of inheritance after the enthronement.”
As is generally known in Japan, the so-called sanshu no jinki (“three sacred treasures”) of the imperial family comprise a mirror (Yata no kagami), a sword (Kusanagi no tsurugi), and a jewel (Yasaka no magatama).
Kenji refers to the sword and the jewel. And Kenji tou shoukei no Gi refers to a rite in which the new emperor will inherit these two treasures from his ancestors.
The last of the three sacred treasures—the jewel—is securely stored at a building called “the sanctuary” within the palace at all times. It is kept there even during the enthronement ceremony.
The Booklet touches on something important in this regard. It notes that the old Imperial House law enacted in 1889 ruled that all of the imperial regalia would be transferred to the crown prince with the passing of his father, and that, based on this rule, a ceremony called Kenji togyo no Gi (ceremony to transfer the mirror and the sword) would be held to mark the transfer.
However, when Crown Prince Akihito was enthroned 30 years ago following the demise of his father Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, forces critical of the imperial household used separation of church and state (Article 20 of the postwar constitution) as a shield to maintain that the word togyo (“transfer”) is unconstitutional and forced the government to use shoukei (“inherit”) instead. Further, these forces maneuvered to put in tou (“others”), changing the name of the ceremony to Kenji tou shoukei no Gi, which means a ceremony in which the new emperor inherits not only the mirror and the sword, but other items.
With just the one word meaning “others” inserted into Kenji shoukei no Gi, the ceremony which originally involved only the sword and the jewel has been expanded to also include the Privy Seal of Japan and the Imperial Seal. In other words, the ceremony has constructed so as to appear to be an occasion for the new emperor to inherit not only the sword and the jewel but other relevant historical items.
In fact, however, the strong impact that the word Kenji togyo initially had linking the origin of the imperial family with the deep and rich Japanese mythology symbolized by the sacred sword and jewel has now been considerably weakened by the addition of these “other” items.
Anti-imperial household forces maintain that since the Kenji togyo ceremony is based on the mythology of the birth of Japan, it is inappropriate as a state-sponsored ceremony. They allege it runs counter to the spirit of separation of church and state.
Impressed with Japan
But mythology is different from religion. Any race, or any nation for that matter, has a myth pertaining to its birth. A denial of a nation’s origin myth is a denial of its spirituality and culture, tantamount to severing its roots with its past. If tradition and religious values are to be altogether precluded, a nation has no ground on which to stand.
Looking back over Emperor Showa’s funeral in 1989, I remember “separation of church and state” was hotly debated across Japan. Clause 3 of Article 20 of our constitution stipulates: “The state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” Taking this article too literally and superficially, the liberals criticized the part the government played in the imperial funeral as a violation of the constitution.
For example, a ritual at the imperial funeral hall, which was an important part of the emperor’s funeral, was performed not by the government but the Imperial Household, which called the rite its official event, as it was construed as a religious service. In the funeral for Emperor Showa that followed, a torii Shinto entrance gate was removed from the site in order to delete the religious connotation from the state funeral. Many things about that funeral, which should have been carried out smoothly as a reflection of Japanese tradition, were criticized by liberals. But there is in fact a Supreme Court ruling that gives a less strict interpretation to the separation of church and state. I will cite from the Booklet.
Among other things, the Supreme Court notes that it does not define official “religious activities” as “every single activity of the state or its organs that has to do with religion.”
What the constitution prohibits, according to the top court, is government activities “with religious implications exceeding a plausible limit in light of social and cultural conditions.” The court also bans “official activities bearing religious significance which it determines to have the effect of abetting or promoting—or suppressing or interfering with—religion.”
I believe this judgment by the Supreme Court shows that while the government is prohibited from aiding or suppressing any particular religion, the court is not opposed to a “union between politics and religion” within the bounds of common sense. In point of fact, the world in general has been impressed with what it regards as a beautiful blend of nature and religious perspective that exists in the Japanese mind. This was particularly evident at the time of Emperor Showa’s funeral.
Chaim Herzog, the late Israeli President (1983-93) was quoted as remarking after attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral:
“Through the funeral, I had the good fortune of coming in contact with the great tradition of Japan and was immensely impressed…In this day and age of superficiality, I wish to pay my deep respect to Japan for being able to so steadfastly preserve its great tradition while incessantly modernizing itself.”
On the occasion of the coming royal succession, I earnestly hope that we will all come to better understand Japan’s history and national character.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 829 in the November 29, 2018 edition of The Weekly Shincho)