Tonight, the central ceremony of the Daijōsai will be held, in the Daijōkyū in the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The Tennō will, in person, make offerings to Amaterasu Ōmikami, as the ancestral kami of the Imperial line, and to all the kami of the heavens and the earth. This ceremony is performed once by each Tennō, at the beginning of their reign, and it is the most important of all the Shinto rites performed by the Tennō.
I have written two essays about the Daijōsai for my Patreon, one on the practical details of the ritual, which was sent out to last month’s patrons early this month, and one on the debates over the meaning of the ceremony, which will be sent out to this month’s patrons early next month, but together they come to over 10,000 words, so I thought it might be a good idea to give a much shorter description here.
The ritual centres on the offering of newly harvested rice to the kami, in a ritual in which the Tennō also eats some of it. The rice is grown in two regions of Japan which are selected by divination, the Yuki Region and Suki Region. This time, they are Tochigi Prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture, respectively. After the rice is harvested, in a special ritual, it is brought to Tokyo ready for the ritual.
The Daijōkyū is the site of the main rituals, and is a complex of buildings specially constructed in the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The whole complex is used only for this ritual, and it is deconstructed afterwards (although this time the plan is for it to be open to the public for a while first). The heart of the Daijōkyū is two halls, called the Yukiden and Sukiden.
The Yukiden and Sukiden are copies of each other. Each is a simple rectangular wooden building, with the long axis running north to south. Traditionally, they were thatched, but this time they are roofed with boards — a decision that has been a bit controversial. The interior of each building is divided into two chambers. The southern one is an antechamber, and the northern one is the sacred room where the Tennō performs the ritual. Only two people enter the sacred room for the ritual itself: the Tennō, and a female attendant called the “Haizen Unëmë”.
The sacred room, traditionally called the “muro”, is dominated by a bed laid out on the floor in the centre. However, that plays no active role in the ritual. (For several speculations on what it might once have been for, see this month’s Patreon essay.) The ritual takes place to one side of the bed, where four mats are laid out: one for the kami to sit on, one for the kami’s food, one for the Tennō to sit on, and one for the Tennō’s food. When sitting on his mat, the Tennō is facing towards Isë, the site of Jingū, where Amaterasu Ōmikami is enshrined.
The Haizen Unëmë gives the offerings to the Tennō, in boxes made from oak leaves. He uses bamboo chopsticks, in a single piece like tweezers, to take three bits of each offering from the boxes, and places them on a flat, round plate, also made of oak leaves. The Haize Unëmë then sets the plate in the defined location on the mat for the kami’s food.
Finally, the Tennō eats some rice, and some millet, and drinks some sakë, concluding the ritual.
This ritual is performed twice. It is first performed in the Yukiden, from about 8 pm to about 10 pm. (The Tennō has to kneel formally throughout.) It is then performed again, in the Sukiden, from about 1:30 am to about 3:30 am.
The ceremony is secret, so it is not possible to see what happens, and I have no intention of staying up late to watch the outside of the buildings live, if it is even being shown. (I may try to see the initial procession to the Yukiden, which was filmed last time.) While it is clearly derived from a harvest ritual, the Niinamësai, which is performed every year, the precise meaning of the Daijōsai is a matter of significant debate, as is the significance of the various elements. If you want to know more about that, I recommend signing up to my Patreon to get this month’s essay. (Or, if you are reading this in December or later, signing up and getting the back number covering the topic.)