Japanese Emperor Naruhito formally proclaimed his ascendancy to the throne on Tuesday in a centuries-old ceremony attended by dignitaries from more than 180 countries, pledging to fulfil his duty as a symbol of the state.
Naruhito became emperor and his wife Masako became empress on May 1 in a brief ceremony, but Tuesday’s ‘Sokui no Rei’ was a more elaborate ritual at the royal palace in which he officially announced his change in status to the world.
‘I swear that I will act according to the constitution and fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,’ the 59-year-old declared, his voice slightly hoarse, in front of about 2,000 guests, including Britain’s Prince Charles.
The challenges facing Japan’s new emperor and empress
Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito begins his reign facing the delicate task of balancing modernity with the traditions of the world’s oldest monarchy, including protecting his family from the palace’s rigid rules.
The 59-year-old has been critical about the sometimes stifling lifestyle imposed on royals, after it was revealed wife Masako has been receiving treatment for ‘adjustment disorder’ almost their entire marriage.
He also has to navigate the world of politics, after using his first speech to warn of the need to remember World War II ‘correctly’ without glossing over Japan’s militarism, in what many saw as a criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist agenda.
Naruhito has, in the past, promised to ‘protect [Masako] at any cost’ as she made the transition from the daughter of a diplomat to a royal, as she explained that she abandoned her career to ‘make myself useful in this new path’.
But she struggled to adjust to cloistered royal life, punctuated only by occasional and highly choreographed public appearances.
She also came under enormous pressure to bear a son because Japan’s imperial succession excludes women. This scrutiny only intensified after she gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001 – the couple’s only child.
The pressure on Masako eased somewhat when her sister-in-law gave birth in 2006 to a son, the now 13-year-old Prince Hisahito.
She appeared confident during Naruhito’s enthronement in May and at ease when the royal couple welcomed US President Donald Trump as the first foreign leader to greet the new emperor.
Naruhito and Masako are expected to pursue the role of comforters-in-chief crafted by the previous emperor and empress, who won public support for meeting with victims of natural disasters.
‘I sincerely hope that Japan will develop further and contribute to the friendship and peace of the international community, and to the welfare and prosperity of human beings through the people’s wisdom and ceaseless efforts.’
The first Japanese emperor born after World War Two, Naruhito acceded to the throne when his father, Akihito, became the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in two centuries after worrying that advancing age might make it hard to perform official duties.
The long-planned celebrations, for which Japan declared a national holiday, were tempered by Typhoon Hagibis, which killed at least 82 people when it tore through Japan 10 days ago, and pouring rain early on Tuesday.
A public parade was postponed until next month to allow the government to devote its attention to the typhoon clean-up, while Tuesday’s inclement weather forced the palace to scale back the number of courtiers in ancient robes taking part in the courtyard ceremony although the skies cleared as it began.
At the sound of a gong in the Matsu-no-Ma, or Hall of Pine, the most prestigious room in the palace, two courtiers bowed deeply and drew back purple curtains on the ‘Takamikura’ – a 6.5-metre (21 feet) high pavilion that weighs about 8 tonnes.
Naruhito was revealed standing in front of a simple throne, dressed in burnt-orange robes and a black headdress, with an ancient sword and a boxed jewel, two of the so-called Three Sacred Treasures, placed beside him.
Fifty-five-year-old Harvard-educated Empress Masako, wearing heavy 12-layered robes and with hair flowing down her back, stood in front of a smaller throne to the side. Such traditional robes can weigh around 15 kilogrammes (33 pounds).
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a congratulatory speech before assembled dignitaries including Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s younger brother, and his family, all adorned in brightly-coloured robes. Other guests included U.S. Transport Secretary Elaine Chao and Myanmar civilan leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Abe led a trio of cheers of ‘banzai’, or ‘long life’, for the emperor, before a 21-gun salute.
A royally good guest-list
Royal figures attending the ceremony included:
- Prince Charles, UK
- King Felipe IV and Queen Letizia, Spain
- King Phillppe and Queen Mathilde, Belgium
- Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary, Denmark
- Grand Duke Henri, Luxembourg
- King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, Netherlands
- Crown Prince Hakkon, Norway
- King Carl XVI Gustaf and Crown Princess Victoria, Sweden
- King Jigme and Queen Jetsun, Bhutan
- Sultan Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar
- King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia
- King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah, Malaysia
- Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei
Naruhito had earlier entered the palace to cheers from waiting fans before reporting his enthronement to his imperial ancestors at three shrines on the palace grounds, dressed in pure white robes.
‘As he is young and energetic with outstanding leadership, I hope he’ll support the people of Japan, which has faced continuous disasters and typhoons,’ said Tomoko Shirakawa, 51, who was among the crowds of umbrella-clutching citizens packing the area in front of the palace.
A court banquet is due to be held on Tuesday evening, before Naruhito and Masako host a tea party for foreign royalty on Wednesday afternoon. The government pardoned about half a million people convicted of petty crimes, such as traffic violations, to mark the day.
Although the public parade was postponed until Nov. 10, NHK public TV said there were 26,000 police providing security on Tuesday.
Naruhito is unusual among recent Japanese emperors since his only child, 17-year-old Aiko, is female and as such cannot inherit the throne under current law. Unless the law is revised, the future of the imperial family for coming generations rests instead on the shoulders of his nephew, 13-year-old Hisahito, who is second in line for the throne after his father, Crown Prince Akishino.
Naruhito’s grandfather, Hirohito, in whose name Japanese troops fought World War Two, was treated as a god but renounced his divine status after Japan’s defeat in 1945. Emperors now have no political authority.
Though many Japanese welcomed the enthronement ceremony, some shrugged it off as a nuisance. There was at least one protest with about two dozen people taking part, a small objection compared to the sometimes violent protests when Akihito was enthroned.
‘There is no need for such an elaborate ceremony. Traffic has been restricted and it is causing inconvenience for ordinary people,’ said Yoshikazu Arai, 74, a retired surgeon.
‘The emperor is necessary now as a symbol of the people, but at some point, the emperor will no longer be necessary. Things will be just fine without an emperor.’
An eight-ton throne, a 24-inch tall hat, and secret treasures the emperor cannot look at: Pomp and ceremony of Japan’s ascension ritual
Rarely seen outfits, elaborate thrones and ancient paraphernalia adorn Tuesday’s sacred and sumptuous ceremony marking the formal ascension of Emperor Naruhito to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne.
The new emperor took the throne earlier this year after his father Akihito’s abdication, but the proclamation ceremony cements the transition in stunning style.
Here are some of the elements that were on show:
– Imperial Thrones –
The emperor and empress are each allotted an enormous throne, consisting of a relatively restrained seat set inside an elaborate canopy atop a fenced platform.
The emperor’s eight-tonne throne is called ‘Takamikura’, while the empress’s smaller ‘august seat’ is known as ‘Michodai’.
The structures are made of lacquered cypress wood and were disassembled for transport from the ancient capital of Kyoto to Tokyo for the ceremony.
The emperor’s seat sits inside a canopy featuring rich purple curtains hanging from a roof decorated with golden curlicue adornments and 16-petal chrysanthemum crests.
Underneath is a rectangular stage with low red fencing and side panels painted with legendary animals.
On the points of the octagonal roof sit golden phoenixes, with another larger version of the bird atop the roof’s peak.
To either side of the emperor’s chair are desks where a sacred sword and jewel, part of the imperial regalia, and seals will be placed.
But the emperor will not actually sit on the throne during the ceremony, remaining standing throughout.
– The new emperor’s clothes –
For the ceremony, the emperor will wear a silk outfit in the ‘sokutai’ or ceremonial style. The outfit is now rarely seen and is dominated by a voluminous draped brown-gold outer robe with long, wide sleeves and a cinched waist.
Royal attire often includes motifs of birds, as they were considered divine envoys in ancient times and the emperor’s outer garment is decorated with a mythical Chinese phoenix, believed to symbolise the arrival of peace.
During the ceremony, the emperor and other male royals will carry a ‘shaku’ or sceptre – a narrow plain wooden plate not unlike a large shoehorn.
In the past, royals would sometimes attach ‘cheat sheets’ to the back of the shaku to help guide them through complex rituals.
But the crowning glory of the emperor’s outfit is the kanmuri hat, which consists of a simple flat black base and a towering black tail at the back that extends upright 60 centimetres (about 24 inches).
– Fit for an empress –
Empress Masako will wear an elaborate outfit commonly known as ‘junihitoe’ or many-layered robe.
Masako is expected to wear outfits with part of the rich red sleeves and bottom visible underneath multiple layers of varying lengths. Top layers will be light lilac and green shades with light purple lapels.
Masako’s hair will be sculpted into a style that sweeps up and out to the sides with a long ponytail extending from the back and a large golden hairpiece pinned above her forehead.
The elaborate traditional outfit, which can be hard to walk in because of its weight, is rarely seen outside imperial rituals and weddings.
– The sacred treasures –
The ceremony would not be complete without the presence of the ‘sacred treasures’. Japanese mythology has it that the sun goddess Amaterasu bequeathed the regalia to the imperial line two millennia ago.
The treasures are the ‘Yata no Kagami’, a mirror, ‘Kusanagi no Tsurugi’, a sword, and the ‘Yasakani no Magatama’, an unspecified jewel.
The possession of the ‘three sacred treasures’ is considered crucial evidence of an emperor’s legitimacy, but there are no photos of them and even the emperor cannot see them.
The treasures were handed to the new emperor in the initial enthronement ceremony held on May 1.
During the upcoming proclamation ceremony, a replica sword and the original jewel will be brought in wrapped in cloth. Both are kept at the palace, along with a replica mirror that is not brought out for ceremonies.