TOKYO -- Emperor Akihito and two white-clad maidens retreated into the inner sanctum of a thatched hall last night to affirm his bonds with Amaterasu, the sun goddess, through $19 million worth of centuries-old Shinto religious rituals no one else was allowed to see.
After six hours of torchlight ritual punctuated by a three-hour rest, he emerged from the inner sanctum after 3 a.m., the first emperor ever to complete the ceremony without being turned into a living god.
The night of deeply secret ceremonies -- the Daijosai, or Great Rice-Offering Ritual -- was the last and by far most controversial big event in nearly two years of the most elaborate and expensive royal transition in history.
Weeks of bombings and arsons that have killed a police officer and destroyed or damaged a score of ancient Shinto shrines all over Japan, have preceeded the all-night rituals.
The ceremonies have been the center of two years of controversy over the role of the first emperor to come to the Chrysanthemum Throne since defeat in World War II ended the state-supported religious cult of Emperor Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, who died of cancer last year.
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, his entire Cabinet and some 700 other ranking Japanese guests attended last night's ritual but sat outside under tents, permitted to watch only the emperor's entering and leaving the hall.
The household agency has maintained deep secrecy about details of the 1,300-year-old ritual, but its bureaucrats did go out of their way this month to deny a widely quoted academic theory that the emperor entered into a symbolic sexual union with Amaterasu.
Despite the deployment of tens of thousands of officers in metropolitan Tokyo, police have had little luck either thwarting or investigating the anti-enthronement violence.
Yesterday morning, an ancient Shinto shrine near Fukuoka was added to the casualty list, burned almost to the ground.
Some of the bombings and arsons have cost Japan irreplaceable religious and artistic treasures as old as 1,100 years. Radical leftist groups, including one calling itself the Middle Core Faction, have claimed responsibility for most of the violence.
Public opinion polls show big majorities of Japanese saying they either don't understand or don't care about the rituals.
But many non-Shinto Japanese religious groups, including some Buddhists and some leaders of the country's small Christian minority, have actively protested the use of $19 million in tax money and the presence of officials, as have several political parties.
Opponents have argued that of all the enthronement activities, the Daijosai goes farthest to muddy the issue of whether the emperor is a god, a status his father renounced early in the U.S. occupation after World War II.