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Preparing for the Daijōsai

Japan will be getting a new Tennō at the beginning of May next year. There are, as might be expected, many ceremonies associated with this, but from the Shinto perspective the most important is the Daijōsai. This will be held next November, and I will almost certainly write an essay about it for my Patreon when it gets a bit closer.

There are, however, many preparations needed for the ceremony, and Jinja Shinpō published an article about the first last week.

The offerings made during the ceremony include two kinds of cloth, called “nigitaë” and “arataë”, which are silk and linen, respectively. The article was about the linen.

Many of the roles in the Daijōsai were performed by people from particular families, many in the Inbë clan, and a major purpose of one of the important early sources for Shinto, the Kogoshūi, was to set out which branches of the Inbë family had which responsibilities during the ceremony, and which legendary events were the foundation for those duties. (The author was a member of the central Inbë family in the early ninth century.)

One of these groups lived in eastern Shikoku, and they were responsible for providing the linen. This responsibility was recorded in the Engishiki, state regulations settled in the early tenth century, and it appears that they continued to perform that function until the fourteenth century, when civil wars, a split in the Imperial household (there were two Tennō, from different lineages in the Imperial family, at the same time for a century or so), and a decline in the resources available for Imperial ceremonies meant that, ultimately, the ceremony itself was not performed for over two centuries.

The Daijōsai was revived in the early modern period, but the linen was obtained from elsewhere. However, for Taishō Tennō’s Daijōsai in 1915, this custom was restored, and the descendants of the Inbë who still lived in eastern Shikoku (now Tokushima prefecture) were asked to supply the linen again. Since the current Tennō’s Daijōsai, in 1990, the people involved have created two formal organisations, at least one of which is legally registered as a non-profit, to ensure that they can continue to fulfil this function.

On October 31st, they held a jichinsai, a ceremony to purify an area of land and pray for the success of activities there, at the field where the flax for the linen will be grown.

This is a good example of one factor that makes the Daijōsai interesting. It is not an invented tradition. It really was carried out in this way over a thousand years ago, and the tradition continued for centuries. When circumstances stopped it, people regretted that, and worked to restore it, following the old regulations as far as possible. On the other hand, it is not a continuous tradition, nor is it unchanging. The most important parts of the Tennō’s accession ceremony appear to have been Buddhist for a significant length of time (which may well be why the Daijōsai was allowed to go into abeyance), and the Daijōsai has certainly been used to support particular political positions over the centuries.

It is a genuine tradition, with over a thousand years of real history, but its meaning has been, and still is, contested. It will be interesting to see what happens this time.

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