The Daijōsai is a large-scale Shinto ceremony held to mark the accession of a new Tennō. It has over 1300 years of (interrupted) history, and, for the Shinto establishment, it is one of the most important of all Shinto ceremonies. Indeed, were you to ask a member of that establishment which ceremony was more important, the Daijōsai or the Grand Renewal of Jingū, I suspect they would find it difficult to answer. That’s not a political matter; the two ceremonies have different kinds of significance, so they are very hard to rank.
After the establishment of the new constitution, the Daijōsai became problematic. It is clearly a religious ceremony, and the constitution mandates a strict separation between the state and religion. Shōwa Tennō lived for a long time after the war, which meant that the question did not actually come up until 1990. At that time, the decision taken was that the Daijōsai was a private ceremony of the Imperial family, not a state event, but that the state would pay for it, because it was really important. Some people sued, saying that this was an illegitimate fudge, but the courts accepted the government decision. The current government has decided to treat the next Daijōsai in the same way, and legally they are pretty safe. It is hard to see anything legally relevant that has changed in the last thirty years.
However, at the end of last week, His Imperial Highness Prince Akishino gave a press conference to mark his birthday. In this press conference, he said that he thought that the Daijōsai was a strongly religious ceremony, and that, therefore, it probably should be paid for out of the Imperial Household’s private budget, not by the state. (Obviously, the state pays the Imperial Household’s private budget, but legally only in the same way as it pays civil servants; the Tennō can spend the money freely.) He also said that he had thought the same in 1990, but he had been overruled.
This is a bombshell. It missed the deadline for this week’s Jinja Shinpō, but it made the national news. Prince Akishino is the younger brother of the Crown Prince, and as the Crown Prince’s only child is a daughter, he will become the heir to the throne when the Crown Prince becomes Tennō. In other words, the next but one Daijōsai will be his, and he has publicly said that he does not think that the state should fund it.
That probably means that the state will not. It is a legal grey area at best, and funding it against the publicly expressed wishes of the new Tennō would be politically difficult. The Daijōsai costs about ¥2.5 billion, while the Imperial Household’s annual private budget is about ¥300 million. Realistically, the Daijōsai would have to be scaled back significantly. The Shinto establishment will not like that idea, and also will not like the idea of it not being funded by the state; they believe that these ceremonies should all be state ceremonies.
Personally, I think Prince Akishino is right. State funding for the Daijōsai is sleight of hand to get around the constitution, and outside the range of what I think a government can morally justify spending tax income on. I think it would be better if the Daijōsai were not funded by the state.
However, the Imperial Family cannot afford it, and I also think it would be best to continue the ceremony at full scale. There is an obvious solution: the Shinto community can raise money, and give it to the Imperial Family to perform the Daijōsai. Legally, the Imperial Family must have the Diet’s permission to accept substantial gifts, so there would have to be a law governing the donations, but that law would be easy to pass. Further, ¥2.5 billion is about $25 million, which is a lot of money, but not so much when you have about 20 years to raise it, and 20,000 priests to help. The Grand Renewal of Jingū is about twenty times as expensive, and happens more often, and that is fully privately funded.
Privately funding it would also protect it from a hostile government. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the cabinet at the time of a change of Tennō might be somewhat negative about the imperial institution, and decide not to pay for the Daijōsai, using the constitution as cover. Under the current system, that would stop the ceremony. With a legal framework for private funding, the ceremony would go ahead, and would, I suspect, arouse much less opposition.
It will be very interesting to see how the Shinto establishment handles this issue, but I think it is a chance to significantly improve the current system. It would be tactless to pass any laws before the Daijōsai next year, but personally I would like to see something done soon after that to prepare for the following Daijōsai to be independent of direct state funding.