Wearing the white silk robes of a high Shinto priest, Japan's Emperor Akihito communed Thursday night with his mythical ancestor, the Sun Goddess, in a torchlight enthronement ritual that was clouded by controversy over the constitutional separation of religion and state.
The government-funded religious ceremony climaxed Akihito's elaborate rite of passage into emperorhood, which began nearly two years ago with the death of his father, Hirohito.
Tradition dictated that Akihito celebrate his formal enthronement only after a year of mourning had passed and sacred rice had been grown and harvested for the Daijo-sai, or Great Food Offering. In a secular ceremony held Nov. 12 and attended by representatives of 158 nations, Akihito announced his accession to the world.
The meaning of the Daijo-sai is shrouded in mystery and obscured by the vicissitudes of an imperial succession that spans more than a millennium. But in essence, it is a ritual of thanksgiving.
Akihito, surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens, offered freshly harvested rice and millet and an array of other foods from the land and the sea to Amaterasu O-mikami, as the Sun Goddess is called. He also recited a prayer to the deity, beseeching her for the welfare of the Japanese people, according to a description by Imperial Household Agency officials.
The ritual continued until dawn today, as Akihito repeated the offerings in two primitive huts built on the grounds of the Imperial Palace--one representing western Japan, the other eastern Japan.
To some conservative Japanese, the secretive goings-on inside the darkened enthronement huts symbolized Emperor Akihito's final transformation into a divine being. Various interpretations of the rite, some with scholarly grounding, hold that Akihito receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or joins with her in symbolic sexual union--a theory derived from the presence of vestigial straw beds in the huts.
The government and the Imperial Household Agency have vehemently denied that the ceremony contains any such symbolism. Television cameras were not allowed into the ritual compound, but officials insisted that Akihito would not even touch the shinza, or ceremonial beds.
Still, the nation's left-wing intelligentsia and its Christian minority note that Akihito is repeating the same Daijo-sai rite that was believed to have deified his father, Hirohito, 62 years ago. Hirohito was worshipped as a living god but renounced his divinity after Japan's defeat in World War II. Yet critics contend that the $17-million government funding of the rite violates the postwar constitution's separation of religious and state affairs.
Several peaceful demonstrations were held across Japan on Thursday to protest the Daijo-sai, and Christians staged a hunger strike.
In a continuation of a series of minor acts of violence that marred the Nov. 12 enthronement rite, leftist radicals were blamed for setting fires at three Shinto shrines and for torching four suburban Tokyo train stations. Assailants also launched metal projectiles from homemade mortars at an imperial villa in Kyoto. No injuries were reported.
Despite the intense interest in the enthronement rites from the extreme left and the far right, many Japanese professed disinterest in the event. In a survey by the Yomiuri newspaper at the beginning of the month, as many as 46.4% of the respondents said they had little or no interest in the enthronement. Only 12.9% said they had a strong interest.