Enthronement Of Emperor Naruhito In Japan – Analysis


The enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito of Japan, formalizing his accession to the throne, was held on 22 October at the Seiden State Hall at the Imperial Palace, officially proclaiming him as the Emperor in Japan. The Imperial succession had already taken place on 1 May following the abdication of Emperor Akihito, the first such abdication since 1817 and so first in 200 years. Attended by leaders and representatives from about 180 countries along with heads of judicial, legislative and executive branches of government and representatives of various sectors of society, the Emperor, wearing a formal court dress traditionally worn by emperors called korozen-no-goho, stated: “I now perform the Ceremony of Enthronement at the Seiden State Hall and proclaim my enthronement to those at home and abroad.” This was the main event of the Ceremonies of the Accession to the Throne of the Emperor. The Emperor pledged to fulfill his responsibility as the symbol of the state and to wish for the happiness of the people. The Empress wore a junihitoe, a ceremonial robe from the Heian period (late 8th to late 12th century). The Imperial Procession by motorcar was postponed until 10 November. The enthronement ceremony is called Sokuirei-Seiden-no-Go in Japanese. 

The abdicated Emperor, called now as Emperor Emeritus, was on throne for more than 30 years and had constantly prayed for the happiness of the people and world peace, always sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people, and showing compassion through his own bearing. Reflecting on this experience of Ex-Emperor Akihito, Emperor Naruhito pledged to act according to the Constitution and fulfill his responsibility as the symbol of state and of the unity of the people of Japan. He expressed hope that Japan through its people’s “wisdom and unceasing efforts, achieves further development and contributes to the friendship and peace of the international community and the welfare and prosperity of humankind”.

Keeping with Japan’s tradition, the government sent invitations to 194 countries that Japan recognizes as states for the ceremony. The only exception was Syria due to concerns over rampant atrocious acts by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Of the 194 states, 183 sent representatives to attend the ceremony. In addition, the government sent invitations to the United Nations, the European Union and the Palestinian Authority. The number of countries Japan sent invitations this time increased by about 30 compared with the previous enthronement proclamation ceremony held in 1990, the year after the Heisei era began, mainly because a number of countries declared their independence following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 70 countries sent to the ceremony their heads of state, such as kings and presidents, while royal family members, heads of government, ministers and ambassadors to Japan were guests to attend the ceremony. 

India was represented by President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife. Deepening further bilateral ties, Kovind visited a Buddhist Temple in Tokyo to plant a Bodhi tree. He also traveled to the city of Kakegawa, about 230 km away, to inaugurate an Indian cultural and yoga centre there, funded by a Japanese citizen of Indian origin. This underlined the deep traditional and civilizational bonds between the two countries who also share heritage of Buddhism. 

Prime Minister Abe had a busy schedule meeting many foreign dignitaries. Among the leaders included Maldives President Ibrahim Solih, Nepali President Bidhya Bhandari and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Abe held talks with 23 dignitaries, including with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, during which the two discussed pending issues between the two countries ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit next spring. Abe also had talks with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, during which they discussed the wartime labor issue. The Emperor has deep ties with Britain as he studied at the University of Oxford. Prince Charles attended the proclamation ceremony, as he did in 1990, when he was accompanied by Princess Diana. The Emperor had attended the wedding of Spain’s King Felipe VI, who too was present along with his wife Queen Letizia during the ceremony. 

Among other leaders who represented their countries included Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam reached Tokyo on 21 October and departed the following day because she has been preoccupied with responding to prolonged and widespread protests triggered by a contentious bill to revise an ordinance to allow Hong Kong authorities to extradite crime suspects to mainland China for prosecution.

Why is the enthronement ceremony significant and why it is important for the Japanese people? The ceremony is centuries-old and Japanese people have preserved this with respect and pride for thousands of years. It is deep-rooted with Japanese history and culture and therefore treated with reverence. The series of rituals known as Sokui no Rei was quite elaborate. While the Emperor Naruhito (59) and Empress Masako (55) were seated in two ornately decorated thrones, the brother of Emperor Emeritus Akihito, 83-year-old Prince Hitachi, and third in line of succession, watched the proceedings from a wheelchair. Prime Minister Abe stood before Naruhito’s throne, and read a speech. As is the custom, he then bowed deeply and led the audience in yelling Banzai (“Long live the emperor! or literally Ten Thousand years”) three times. 

As Naruhito ascended the throne, boxes were placed next to him that are believed to contain a sword and ancient jewel that, according to legend, date back to the mythical forefather of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, who ruled almost 2,700 years ago. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuing hereditary monarch in the world, with some dating it back to around 600 BC. Along with a fabled octagonal mirror, they form Japan’s royal regalia, or the Three Sacred Treasures. The sword and the jewel are so sacred that they have never been seen in public.

Despite the reverence in which the emperor is seen in Japan, there were critics as well who saw the cheers led by the prime minister standing below the emperor on his podium, was violating the Constitution, which states that the emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”

The celebrations were tempered somewhat as Japan wasreeling from Typhoon Hagibis – one of the strongest storms to hit the country in years. The typhoon left over 80 dead and caused extensive damage after it smashed into the country in early October. More than 1,700 houses were fully or partially destroyed, while over 33,000 houses were flooded. The devastation prompted the palace to postpone a 4.6-kilometer (2.9-mile) public celebratory parade from the Imperial Palace to Akasaka Palace until 10 November in deference to the victims of Typhoon Hagibis and out of respect for the victims and their families. The Great Thanksgiving Ceremony known as the Daijosai would be held on 14-15 November. Some 120,000 people, many waving national flags, lined the route to cheer Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as they passed by in a Rolls-Royce Corniche III after Naruhito’s enthronement.

As a special gesture, the government pardoned about 550,000 petty criminals found guilty and fined over minor offenses including traffic violations, theft and election frauds, provided they paid the penalty at least three years ago to mark the emperor’s enthronement ceremony.  People whose conviction was difficult to implement due to ill health of financial difficulties were also included. However those who committed serious crimes were not considered.

Under Japanese law, criminals must wait five years after being convicted for a minor offence or paying a fine before they can sit exams and get national licenses. The pardons are expected to lift those restrictions, although they will not clear the offenders’ criminal records. It i0s not the first time that pardons have been used to mark major events involving the emperor. When Emperor Hirohito, known as Emperor Showa, died in 1989, more than 10 million people received amnesties. In 1990, another 2.5 million were pardoned to celebrate Emperor Akihito’s ascension to the throne.

The measure, however, remains controversial. Some lawmakers opine that the pardons were not appropriate “if the government was trying to take advantage of the celebratory mood surrounding the enthronement to provide politically motivated benefits to certain people.” In the Diet session on October 8, opposition politician and Upper House member Hiroyuki Nagahama questioned whether the pardons were compatible with the separation of powers and principles of transparency, given they will be decided by the administration without any oversight from the judiciary.

Four days later, on 14 November, yet another ceremony will be held, a mysterious affair in which the emperor may or may not have conjugal relations with a goddess. Being a secret ritual and known as the daijosai, it occurs inside two of a series of temporary wooden buildings erected just for the occasion in the east gardens of the Imperial Palace. Nobody knows for sure what happens during the rites, which have roots in Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. The emperor is said to offer rice and other specially prepared foods to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess from whom all emperors, according to legend, are descended. In part of the ceremony, the emperor enters an inner sanctuary at night on his own, accompanied only by two ladies-in-waiting. Analysts and Shinto ritualists have offered different speculation about what, exactly, Naruhito did there while 1,000 guests waited outside. There is a bed inside the sanctum, so some say the emperor lies down with his ancestors and enters into spiritual communion with the gods. Others say he actually becomes a god (though the emperor’s godlike status was annulled by the Americans after World War II). Another theory holds that he has a conjugal visit with the sun goddess.

In the Chrysanthemum traditions, Naruhito became the 126th Emperor of Japan, the latest in an unbroken line that stretches back 14 centuries. The accession in May also signaled officially the start of the “Reiwa” era. Each emperor’s reign is marked by their era name. Reiwa was adopted from an 8th century anthology of classic poetry and means “beautiful harmony”.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the role of the emperor has changed significantly when Naruhito’s grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, sat on the throne. Once considered the living embodiment of gods, the emperor has become a largely symbolic figure. Unlike other monarchs, Naruhito is a symbol of the state rather than the head of state, and the Japanese emperor wields no political power. 

As mentioned earlier, when Naruhito took the throne from his father Akihito, Akihito became the first emperor to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne in modern history. It may be recalled also that Akihito was the first Japanese Emperor to marry a non-royal and raised their children by themselves without depending upon mid-wives. Naruhito who now succeeds his father became the first Japanese royal to study abroad and also pledged to continue his father’s legacy and work to break down the barriers between the emperor and his subjects. This demonstrates that the imperial family is responding and readjusting to the changing times. 

Japan’s is the world’s oldest monarchy, which is why the elaborate process of succession and rituals associated with it is embedded in the deep-rooted Japanese culture and tradition. In keeping tune with the changing times, Empress Masako, wife of 26 years, and who was not allowed to attend the ascension ceremony in May because Imperial Household law prohibits women from succeeding the throne, was in the room during the enthronement ceremony. The delay between the ascension and enthronement is because normally a new emperor usually takes the throne after his predecessor dies. In such cases, a short ceremony is quickly arranged and the bigger event follows some time later. For example, when Emperor Hirohito died, his successor, Naruhito’s father, waited a full year after his father’s death for the enthronement ceremony. The enthronement ceremony is designed in part to proclaim the new emperor before the rest of the world, which is why over 180 foreign dignitaries were invited to witness the ceremony. 

An important aspect of the enthronement ceremony to note was the royal paraphernalia associated with the two thrones meant for use by the emperor and empress, made more than 100 years ago. The thrones known as takamikura for the emperor and michidai for the empress are normally stored at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the royal family ruled until the mid-19th century. Each throne is made of thousands of small wood parts. In preparation for the enthronement ceremony on 22 October, the thrones were disassembled more than a year ago and shipped in trucks to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Craftsmen reconstructed them and touched up their lacquer coating.

Keeping tune with the changing times and amidst clamour for transparency, critics question the extravaganza associated in imperial succession process. They question the 2.1 billion yen or more than $19 million tax payers’ money spent on a religious ceremony. About 16.1 billion yen ($148 million) was earmarked for succession-related ceremonies throughout the year, including the enthronement ceremony. The Japanese Communist Party boycotted the festivities to protest and viewed it as a constitutional violation. Even Crown Prince Akishino, Naruhito’s younger brother, questioned whether the state should be financing a religious rite. Despite this skepticism, the imperial family remains beloved in Japan. In fact, a poll by NHK, the public broadcaster, done in September 2019 said that more than 70 per cent of respondents said they felt affinity for the imperial family.

Notwithstanding criticism in certain quarters, the imperial household faces a more existential threat. It is running out of heirs. After Emperor Naruhito, his only successors are his 53-year-old brother, Akishino, and Akishino’s son, the 13-year-old Hisahito. Naruhito’s 83-year-old uncle, Hitachi who was present in the ceremony in a wheelchair, is technically third in line of succession. When the current Empress Masako failed to deliver a make child for quite some time, debate started if women heirs to the throne be allowed. This debate subsided when Hisahito was born, giving new hope to the succession issue in the imperial family. Yet, the issue of revising the Imperial Household Law to admit women as heirs to the throne remains as teenage Hisahito could be the end of the line. 

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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