Prince Akishino questions rite funding

The Japanese Prince who is second-in-line to the throne has questioned the use of public money for a rite linked to the succession of a new Emperor next year.
His comment has been a conversation point in Japan, as it's highly unusual for members of the Imperial family to express an opinion that breaks with a government decision.

What did he say?

Prince Akishino made the comment at a news conference ahead of his 53rd birthday on November 30th. He was speaking about a rite known as Daijosai, which the government has decided to pay for.

Prince Akishino noted that the Daijosai ritual is an Imperial family event and is highly religious. He said he wonders if it is appropriate to cover its costs with state funds.

He said he believes it should be funded from the budget for the Imperial family in consideration of the relationship between a religious event and the constitution.

Prince Akishino added that the Daijosai ritual should definitely be held, but it should be done within the Imperial family's means, as it is an Imperial family event. He said that's how the ritual should be performed.

He said his opinion has not changed since the previous Daijosai, when the present Emperor acceded to the throne. Prince Akishino said he expressed his opinion then, although he was very young.

He said his position was the same -- he conveyed his opinion to the chief of the Imperial Household Agency and other officials, but they did not listen to him. He added that he found this very regrettable.

What is Daijosai?

The Daijosai ritual has been carried out since the late 7th century. The new Emperor offers freshly harvested rice to deities and eats some himself to pray for the country, for people's well-being and for abundant harvests.

The government covered the costs of the rite following the last succession in 1989, suggesting it was an important ceremony for the state.

It spent about 20 million dollars of public money at the time. A number of lawsuits were filed over the constitutionality of the move, but they were all dismissed.

Prince Akishino suggested the event should be financed from the budget for the Imperial family. But it's relatively small, at about 2.8 million dollars for this fiscal year. So the rite would have to be scaled back in a major way.

What has the reaction been?

The head of Imperial Household agency, Shinichiro Yamamoto, said he is sorry that the Prince took his response that way.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed the view that the government will maintain its current policy regarding the funding of the Daijosai ritual.

Suga said he understands that the Imperial Household Agency has explained the situation to Prince Akishino. He added that the government is not considering any new response.

Suga said the Prince was only expressing his own views when questioned by a reporter and that he wants to refrain from commenting on the Prince's opinion.

What are the experts saying?

There have been differing reactions among experts.

Tokyo Metropolitan University Professor Sota Kimura, an expert on Japan's constitution, said he understands Prince Akishino's concern about the funding of the ritual.

Kimura said that after the previous Daijosai in 1990, the Supreme Court said the ritual is religious. He said the government should have been more cautious in considering how to fund the upcoming ritual, instead of deciding just to follow precedent.

Kimura also said he does not think Prince Akishino's remarks are overtly political, but he was shocked that the prince apparently felt he had to make them.

Another legal scholar, Professor Hidetsugu Yagi of Reitaku University, said he cannot understand the prince's concern.

Yagi said the ritual has a religious character, but it is an important rite for the Imperial succession. He said the succession is stipulated in the constitution. He stressed that the ritual is not a personal event for the Imperial family.

Yagi also said the method of funding the ritual has been fully debated and there is no problem using state funds for this purpose.

He said he thinks the prince's remarks to the public could be taken as political and this should not be ignored.

Itsuo Sonobe, a former Supreme Court justice, said the fact that an Imperial family member spoke about a Cabinet decision at a news conference is an unwelcome development. But he said he understands the prince's passionate desire to inform the public that a member of the Imperial family has such a view, after conveying it to the Imperial Household Agency in vain.

Sonobe added that Prince Akishino's remarks may trigger further debate over how to fund the Daijosai rite.

Emperor Akihito's abdication is set to take place on April 30th, 2019. The following day, Crown Prince Naruhito will become the new Emperor.

The Daijosai ritual will be held on November 14th and 15th next year. The Imperial Household Agency is planning for it to follow the pattern of the previous one, but is looking carefully at possible cost-savings, including having fewer guests and cutting the number of ceremonies.