Friday 11 October 2019

A New Emperor for Japan - by Lesley Downer

Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
In Japan the accession of a new emperor initiates a whole new era. Year 1 of the Reiwa Era, the Era of Beautiful Harmony, began on May 1st this year, the day that Emperor Naruhito took the throne. His father, Akihito, abdicated the previous day.

The emperors of Japan are said to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. For many centuries the emperors had a ritual rather than a political status; they were more like popes than kings. The emperor (and the occasional empress) acted as an intermediary with the gods, offering up prayers to protect Japan and ensure good crops, and at some periods they were worshipped as gods themselves.
Naruhito in his enthronement robes

As a result the emperor’s enthronement is a bit different from the coronation of a temporal monarch like Elizabeth II. There are no crown jewels, no golden carriage, no public procession.

There are three successive ceremonies.

Presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures
The first ceremony is the presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures - the sword, the jewel and the mirror - which were given by the Sun Goddess to her grandson when he descended to earth to become the founder of the imperial dynasty. All three once belonged to the Sun Goddess and date from legendary times.

The day Naruhito took the throne, he was formally presented with the sword and the jewel as proof of his rightful succession. The Sword is a replica. The original Grasscutter Sword is enshrined at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. The Jewel is an ancient and profoundly symbolic necklace. But the most important of the three, the Sacred Mirror, never leaves the Grand Shrine at Ise, Japan’s holiest shrine, akin to the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral. Where western religions have an altar, at the heart of every shrine in Japan is a mirror, embodying the god. The Sacred Mirror embodies the Sun Goddess herself.

Enthronement Ritual
Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC)
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
The second ceremony, the enthronement ritual, will take place on October 22nd and international royalty, including Prince Charles, and heads of state will attend. Part is public and part seen only by the emperor and a few Shinto priests. The emperor, wearing full dress regalia, ritually informs his ancestors that he has ascended the throne. He then sits with the empress in a curtained octagonal pavilion topped with a golden Phoenix. The curtains swish open and he declares his ascension to the assembled dignitaries.

The Great Thanksgiving Festival
The third and most important ceremony is a religious one. It takes place in the middle of November. This is the legendary and tantalisingly secret Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, held by torchlight in dead of night deep in the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo.

It takes months of preparation. Special sacred rice has to be grown in paddies chosen and purified by elaborate Shinto purification rituals. Two thatched huts in the ancient native Japanese building style, preceding the arrival of Chinese influence, are constructed in the palace grounds. One represents the ancient style of houses in eastern Japan, the other of western Japan. The furnishings are also in ancient Japanese style. In one there is a vestigial straw bed and the other is for musicians.

Nintoku's tomb
The ritual takes place after nightfall. The emperor, dressed in the white silk robes of a Shinto priest, enters the first darkened hut at 6.30 p.m. Surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens he offers sacred rice and sake to the Sun Goddess, partakes of them himself and prays for bumper crops and national peace.

Then, after midnight, at 12.30, he enters the second hut. No one knows precisely what goes on, but according to some accounts he receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or even joins with her in sexual union, presumably symbolic, and thus assumes his divinity.

Descent from the Sun Goddess
Emperor Nintoku (313-399AD) by
Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912)
According to the story the first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, descended from Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. Traditionally his accession is dated from 660 BC. He is famous for his long bow and the three-legged crow who accompanied him on his journey to Yamato, central Japan. The next 124 emperors are said to be descended directly from him.

Dotted around central Japan, mainly in the Nara area, are some 20,000 ancient burial mounds. Among them are 896 imperial tombs, including those of the 124 emperors, from Jimmu to right up to Hirohito, who died in 1989. Every year envoys arrive to conduct Shinto rituals at the tombs and to offer gifts from the emperor. Many of the most important are in and around the two ancient capitals, Nara and Kyoto. The biggest, a vast keyhole-shaped mound near Osaka, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor (313 - 399 AD).

For many years it was forbidden to excavate the imperial tombs on the grounds that they are sacred religious sites. Then twelve years ago the Imperial Household Agency, that governs all matters to do with the imperial family, gave permission for archaeologists to enter the fringes of two of the tombs but not to excavate there. One suspicion is that the Agency fears that inspection of the tombs will reveal evidence that far from being descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese imperial family actually originated from China and Korea. 
Emperor Naruhito and Empress
Masako wait to greet President
Trump May 2019. Official White
House photo by Andrea Hanks

In 2001, on his 68th birthday, Emperor Akihito mentioned his Korean ancestry, saying, ‘I for my part feel a certain kinship with Korea, given that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of [the Japanese] Emperor Kammu was descended from the line of King Muryong of Paekche [in Korea].’ 

The new Emperor, Naruhito, is very much a twenty first century monarch. He studied at Oxford University where he wrote a thesis on river transport on the Thames and went on to marry a multilingual diplomat, now Empress Masako. He knows Prince Charles and admires the way in which the British monarchy has made itself more accessible to the public. He has said that he wants to ‘stand close to the people’ and ‘bring a fresh breeze’ to the monarchy. Nevertheless he still has to begin his reign by paying his respects to the legendary founder of his dynasty - the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of love and death set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. It tells the story of how the Emperor was transformed from a reclusive religious eminence to the figurehead of the new political order in the middle of the 19th century. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Susan Price said...

Fascinating! And further suggests that if you want an inkling of what the very earliest religious beliefs were like, study Shinto.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, fascinating - makes our royal family look like newcomers! Thanks, Lesley.

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you both! Shinto is indeed fascinating. And there are some very curious stories about what goes inside the second hut ... 'So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!'