What would you do if you ascended to the throne to rule a major world power? If you’re the new emperor of Japan, you go on a government-funded date with a “sun goddess” and say it’s part of your religious tradition.
Emperor Naruhito began his reign earlier this past May and took part in a formal enthronement ritual last month, showing that tradition is incredibly important to him. He just took that to a new level by going to a feast with a so-called sun goddess.
Interesting to traditionalists, I suppose. But in the context of Japanese culture, it isn’t as common as you might think. In fact, while the tradition itself is customary, the fact that the government is paying for it is being protested by activists who support secularization.
Since he formally ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne at the start of May, Naruhito has been undertaking a series of ceremonies and rites. On Thursday night, he will take part in a mystical, 2.7 billion-yen ($24.8 million) ritual known as “Daijosai” — or “rite of great feasting” — which will see him sharing a banquet with the Shinto deity Amaterasu, the sun goddess traditionally claimed by the Japanese Imperial family as one of its divine ancestors.
Preparations for the ritual began months ago, when the shell of a tortoise was baked until it fractured. The cracks in the shell were then subject to an act of divination to determine where the rice to be used in the Daijosai should be grown, according to Japanologist John Breen, who has written about the ceremony. In this case, the rice was planted in fields in Kyoto and Tochigi prefectures.
The Imperial Household says the tradition is integral to an enthronement — but critics say it compromises Japan’s separation of religion and state.
Under Japan’s constitution, the state must refrain from religious activity and cannot fund religious institutions. Critics say Daijosai is an example of the state funding a religious rite — and harks back to an era when the Emperor was considered the human embodiment of a god.
When Naruhito’s father Emperor Akihito underwent the rite in 1990, a number of citizens groups launched legal suits against the government’s involvement in Daijosai. Those cases were ultimately dismissed.
It’s similar in the United States. We have traditions and rituals that, on the surface, appear to violate the Establishment Clause — like saying “so help me God” in oaths. And like the Japanese system, our courts typically ignore challenges to them.
It’s unlikely that challenges this time will get any further than in the past, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about.
(Screenshot via YouTube)