Prince Naruhito′s enthronement: Japanese groups oppose use of state funds | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.12.2018
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Prince Naruhito's enthronement: Japanese groups oppose use of state funds

A coalition of religious groups and citizens is demanding that the Japanese government must not use taxpayers' money to cover the costs of religious rites for next year's enthronement of the new emperor.

Crown Prince Naruhito, the 58-year-old first son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, is due to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1 next year, one day after his father abdicates.

Around 120 people, including Buddhist monks and members of Christian groups, have filed a lawsuit, claiming that the national government paying for "religious ceremonies" that make up a part of the enthronement ceremonies is a violation of the constitutional principle that the state and religion should remain separate.

The emperor's abdication was already controversial as it will be the first time that an emperor has stepped down from the throne since 1817. The question of who pays for the Shinto Daijosai ceremony that makes up part of his son's enthronement has added fuel to the fire.

The Imperial Household Agency has not revealed the costs for the lavish ceremony, but the enthronement of the present emperor in 1990 cost an estimated $96 million (€84.67 million).

Read more: Japan passes bill allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate

No broad dissent

"I think that most people accept that there is an element of the Shinto religion in the enthronement rituals, but they do not seem to mind that their tax money is being used in this way," Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of media and communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW.

"It is a long-running tradition for the imperial family and this emperor is very popular with ordinary people," he said. "He has the support of the vast majority of people because of the crises that have affected Japan in recent years, most importantly the earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck northeast Japan in 2011."

"I don't believe that many people support these suits," he said, pointing out that similar legal challenges were filed in the run-up to the 1990 enthronement, although the courts dismissed every one of them.

Japan's royal family (Getty Images/AFP)

Japan's royal family

In response to the legal challenge, the national government has reiterated that it intends to go ahead with its plan to use state funds for the rites.

Yet there are suggestions that the imperial family itself believes that it is inappropriate for taxpayers' money to be used for the ceremonies.

Prince speaks out

Prince Akishino used the occasion of his 53rd birthday earlier this month to suggest that the state should not be burdened with the cost of rites for his older brother's accession to the throne.

In a press conference ahead of his birthday, the prince stated, "I wonder whether it is appropriate to cover the costs of this highly religious event with state funds."

Instead, he suggested the cost could directly come from the imperial family's funds.

Under the terms of the Japanese constitution, which went into effect in May 1947, the government is not permitted to engage in religious activities, while tradition also dictates that members of the imperial family take no part in political affairs, which includes commenting on domestic or international political matters.

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Subtle messaging

And while the imperial family is not meant to comment on affairs of state, the present emperor has in the past found subtle ways to do precisely that. Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor in the school of social sciences at Tokyo's Waseda University, believes the prince's comments may be another example of just that.

"This was a well thought-out statement, not something that was said on the spur of the moment, so I believe it was the result of the knowledge of the Imperial Household Agency and the emperor," she told DW.

"He has to be seen to be expressing his own personal views and not attempting to influence the government or change their way of thinking, but if members of the public then bring a lawsuit then the imperial family can easily distance themselves from that," she added.

"The nation has a huge financial deficit at present, and the emperor has in the past expressed concern about the well-being of his subjects, so it is very possible that this is another indication of his thoughts on the cost of the ceremonies and how it might otherwise be spent."

"Is that the message? Nobody outside the palace knows for sure," Nakabayashi said. "But it is interesting that we are having this discussion in Japanese society."