Skip to content

Rites of Abdication and Accession

Two days ago, the Jōkō abdicated (sorry, “was deposed”), and yesterday the Tennō ascended to the Imperial dignity. There were, as you might expect, ceremonies involved.

(“Jōkō” is the current title for the person who was Tennō until the end of April. It is a very traditional title for such people, and I think it was a good choice. The official English translation, on the other hand, is “Emperor Emeritus”, which I do not think was a good choice, so I will avoid translating “Jōkō” as well.)

The abdication ceremony took place from 5 pm on the 30th, and you can see a video of the whole thing on YouTube

It is, as you can see, fairly short, and while there are two short speeches (one from the Prime Minister, and one from the Jōkō, although he was still Tennō at that point), most of it is wordless. I will just comment on a few points, which are most relevant to Shinto.

You can see two boxes, covered in brocade, being carried in front of and behind the Tennō as he enters and leaves. The long box in front contains the sword, and the small box behind contains the magatama, or jewel. As I explained a couple of weeks ago, the sword is a sacred copy of the original, which is said to be the goshintai at Atsuta Jingū, but the jewel is said to be the original: the sacred treasure that was passed down from Amaterasu Ōmikami. They are present with the Tennō because they symbolise his rank. This is why they enter the room with him, remain on an (the tables) beside him during the ceremony, and leave with him: he was still Tennō when the ceremony finished.

When the attendants place the two sacred treasures on the table, they turn the boxes. This is because the items should be oriented correctly with respect to the Tennō, and “correct” is different when they are being carried in front of and behind him, and when they are placed beside him. This is very common in Shinto ceremonies, and there are rules for how almost everything should be oriented with respect to the kami.

While the tables were described as “an” by the commentators, using the word for the tables in a jinja, they are not designed in quite the same way. They do not have eight legs, four at each end, as is standard for an an. (Yes, that “an” is an annoying word in English transliteration. We just have to live with it.) This is, I am sure, deliberate. The abdication ceremony was held as a state ceremony, which means that it has to be non-religious. Thus, the an need to not look like the ones that are normally used in jinja.

(The two smaller purple bags contain the two state seals of Japan, which are often seen because they are used by the Tennō to seal laws and other official acts.)

At the end of the ceremony, as he is leaving, the Tennō pauses to help his wife down from the dais. And then, just before he leaves the room, he stops, turns back to face everyone, and the camera, and literally bows out as Tennō.

As well as being quite moving, at least for me, this is quite symbolic. First, the Tennō does not normally do this. Normally, he just leaves. You can see that the attendants, and the Tennō’s wife, were not quite ready for it, so I think that this was unscripted. Second, this is a common part of Japanese etiquette, to show respect for the people in the room you are leaving. At our local supermarket, the staff do it when they are going into the back rooms, and the guards on trains do it when they leave a carriage. Most relevantly to this blog, you are supposed to do it when leaving a jinja, to show your respect for the kami. Thus, the Jōkō was quite clearly showing his respect for the Japanese people, as well as taking his leave of them. In this way, he managed to sum up his attitude to the whole of his period in the role in its final public moments — which is, in itself, an excellent symbol of his approach.

Yesterday, the Tennō ascended to that dignity (the normal Japanese is not “throne”, but “dignity” or “rank”). There were two ceremonies, of which one is significant from a Shinto perspective. This was the “Kenjitō Shōkei no Gi”, or “Ceremony of the Inheritance of the Sword and Jewel.” This can also be viewed on YouTube, and involves no words at all.

This is extremely simple. The Tennō enters, and stands on the stage. The sword and jewel are brought in from the other entrance, after the Tennō is present, and placed on the an. Then they are removed again, and leave with the Tennō. (Note that he does not stop and bow on his way out.)

This ceremony was a bit controversial, because female members of the Imperial family did not attend. There was a woman in attendance, because the whole cabinet attended, and there is a (one!) female cabinet minister at the moment, so it was not that women were excluded. (One of the attending staff also appears to have been female.) This is too complex an issue to deal with in this post. Obviously, sexism is a factor (only one female cabinet minister!), but it is not the only factor. I will have to leave that for another day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.