Japanese emperor to undergo secret, mysterious ritual

November 21, 1990|By Asahi News Service

TOKYO -- In the midst of downtown, the ancient and mysterious world of the imperial family will emerge tomorrow.

In the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, a shrinelike complex of halls will be silhouetted in the autumn twilight and the dim light of watch fires. At the center of the complex are three main holy halls -- two are identical -- for Emperor Akihito's religious ceremonies based on Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion.

Around them are about 30 other buildings, all built this year for the Imperial family's overnight ceremony at a total cost of $7 million. All 33 simple wooden buildings will be destroyed following the ceremony.

The Japanese government, though admitting the rites are religious, has budgeted about $20 million for the ceremony despite the constitutional separation of state and religion. Several people have filed suit to block the ceremony.

About 900 Japanese dignitaries, including Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu will attend the ceremony.

Nevertheless, nobody there will be able to see what is going on in the holy halls, where the emperor will shut himself during the ceremony. The actual rites are an imperial secret and transmitted orally from an emperor to his successor.

Emperor Akihito, purified in hot water, wearing a white costume and followed by a long procession of lieges bearing offerings, will enter one of the twin main halls at dusk.

That will be the beginning of the ritual, which is the most disputed of all the enthronement ceremonies.

The Daijo-sai is the core of the imperial family's traditional Shinto rites, dating back to the middle of the 7th century. Although it is from a similar Shinjo-sai (rite of offering newly harvested rice to deities) held every Nov. 23, the Daijo-sai is the most important because it is held once in the reign of each emperor, according to the Imperial Household Agency.

However, the agency told a news conference a month ago that the ceremony does not include any process that makes the emperor a god.

A female courtier will attend the emperor throughout the ceremony, and the emperor's prayer mentions only gratitude for peace and harvests.

Nonetheless, the ceremony is still a mystery and the meaning of the bed mats, bedclothes, robe, comb and shoes at the center of the twin halls is hotly contested.

One of the most influential interpretations was presented in 1928 by Japanese folklorist Shinobu Origuchi, who said the Daijo-sai is a replay of a myth in which the grandson of the sun goddess descends from heaven to earth wrapped in bedclothes.

The Daijo-sai was held up as the most important among the imperial rituals after the Meiji Restoration as a measure to emphasize the emperor as a living god.

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