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Japan Marks Akihito's Accession

Public response to regal rituals ranges from anticipation, to alarm, to apathy among youth

JAPAN takes a deep measure of itself and its status in the world on Nov. 12, when a man named simply Akihito will declare to the Japanese and to foreign dignitaries that he is emperor. The regal rituals of his enthronement, coming nearly two years after the death of his father, Hirohito, are being viewed by the Japanese with a mix of anticipation, alarm, and apathy.

Among Tokyo's establishment, hopes are strong that Akihito's formal accession will mark the end of Japan's postwar period and its emergence as a global power.

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The ceremony, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe, is designed to give the impression that Akihito is a model of a ``modern monarch.''

For leftists, Christians, and those with bitter memories of prewar imperial militarism, however, a government decision to spend $15 million to religiously sanctify a man whose position under an American-crafted Constitution is derived from the people has brought outspoken criticism, a lawsuit, and even violence (See story below.)

The basis for such concern is an ancient enthronement ritual, known as the Great Rice-Offering, or Daijosai, which is derived from Japan's native Shinto religion.

According to the Imperial Household Agency, Akihito will commune overnight in a thanksgiving of rice offerings with Japan's mythical sun goddess inside a secluded shrine. This will occur Nov. 22, after the more public state ceremony on Nov. 12.

Two opposition political parties, the Buddhist-backed Clean Government Party and the Japan Socialist Party, plan to boycott the Daijosai, claiming government funding of the event violates a constitutional separation of state and religion. The government claims the ritual is a folk tradition ``public in character'' and is part of its responsibility for handling the succession of a constitutional monarchy.

Right-wing groups hope the ritual will evoke a resurgence of nationalism and Japanese ``uniqueness,'' centered on the belief that a Japanese emperor holds temporal supremacy as a descendant of the Shinto gods. In 1946, Hirohito dismissed that view as myth.

``Without Daijosai, Akihito cannot become emperor,'' says Shinto priest Sugao Shirai. ``Any country should cherish its traditions - although that's difficult for me to say in Japan where so many people oppose the emperor system. But if remove this tradition, we will have trouble.''

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Government leaders want the enthronement to help unify the nation and to educate youth about the selfless spirit expected of an emperor - and all Japanese.

But they worry that the televised ceremonies will be largely ignored by many young and increasingly nonconformist Japanese who are jaded about an aloof emperor who, even though the ``symbol of the state,'' lives behind a wide moat and high wall of his imperial palace. These days, many Japanese place their identity and loyalty in their companies, not an emperor.

Having declared Nov. 12 a national holiday - a contentious act of itself - the government has discovered that many Japanese plan to take their leave of the event. Airlines and intercity rail are almost booked full.

Pollsters have focused on whether people care about the enthronement. Nearly half of those polled last month by Yomiuri newspaper said they have little or no interest.

On the other hand, many Japanese over 60 find it difficult to forget their prewar education, which instilled the idea of the emperor as a ``living god.'' At a ceremony last spring, for instance, an announcer asked a largely elderly audience not to rise when Akihito walked on stage. Hardly anyone obeyed.

Still, despite a generation gap, ``the consensus seems to be that it better to have the emperor than a top man like [ex-Prime Minister] Kauei Tanaka,'' says historian Shichihei Yamamoto.

Akihito himself has done little to take the mystery out of the secret religious ceremony, which creates an impression that he is not an ordinary Japanese. (Officially, the emperor and his family are not citizens.)

Trained in his youth by an American Quaker woman, Akihito displays some interest in breaking traditions. He was the first modern emperor, for instance, to take a commoner for a wife.

The government hopes he will help ``internationalize'' Japan by traveling overseas, especially in Asia.

Among the diplomats, heads of state, and guests from 158 countries in attendance, those from Asia may take offense with a government's decision to add two symbolic aspects to the ceremony.

The prime minister will lead a cheer - banzai - to the emperor. And the national anthem, which prays for a long life of the emperor, will be sung. Many Asians under Japanese occupation were forced to perform these acts during the war years.

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