TOKYO — Six months ago, Naruhito, the new emperor of Japan, received a sword, a jewel and official seals in a sacred ceremony that heralded his succession to the throne after his father, Akihito, became the first emperor to abdicate in more than 200 years.
It turns out that was only a prelude.
On Tuesday, Naruhito, 59, will take part in another enthronement ceremony — one in which he will formally declare his ascension to the world’s oldest monarchy — and this time he will actually get to sit on a really big throne.
Also this time: The empress, Masako, Naruhito’s wife of 26 years, will be in the room. In May, Masako, 55, was not allowed to attend the ascension ceremony, in part because Imperial Household law prohibits women from succeeding to the throne.
Why the long gap between ceremonies? A new emperor usually takes the throne after his predecessor dies. A short ceremony is quickly arranged, and a bigger event — the one being held on Tuesday — follows some time later. (When Naruhito’s father, Akihito, took the throne, he waited a full year after the death of his father, Hirohito, the wartime emperor.)
The second ceremony is designed in part to proclaim the new emperor before the rest of the world. Watching from nearby observation rooms in the Imperial Palace on Tuesday will be dignitaries from 183 countries, including Prince Charles of Britain; King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar; President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines; Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong; and Elaine Chao, the United States transportation secretary. (At the enthronement of Naruhito’s father, Vice President Dan Quayle represented the United States.)
Despite the considerable pomp and a series of banquets that will continue through the evening, the government decided to postpone a celebratory parade through the streets of Tokyo in deference to the victims of Typhoon Hagibis, which killed at least 80 people this month.
The parade is now scheduled for Nov. 10. Four days later, yet another ceremony will be held, a mysterious affair in which the emperor may or may not have conjugal relations with a goddess.
Game of Thrones
The most visible royal paraphernalia in Tuesday’s ceremony will be the two thrones for the emperor and empress, made more than 100 years ago.
Most of the time, the thrones — known as the takamikura for the emperor, and the michodai for the empress — are stored at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the royal family ruled until the mid-19th century.
Each throne is made of thousands of small wood parts. In preparation for Tuesday’s ceremony, the thrones were disassembled more than a year ago and shipped in trucks to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Craftsmen reconstructed them and touched up their lacquer coating.
For the ceremony, the thrones will be set up in a stateroom on canopied podiums more than four feet off the wooden floor.
Including the podium height, Naruhito’s throne, which has vermilion handrails, is about 21 feet high. The throne for Masako (who is taller than her husband) is nearly 19 feet high.
When the imperial couple first enter the stateroom — the emperor goes first — they will be seated on the podiums, hidden from view behind curtains made of purple silk with scarlet lining.
The few other people in the room will be members of the imperial family, court chamberlains, ladies-in-waiting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leaders of the two houses of Parliament and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Everybody else — including reporters — will watch from other rooms.
Chamberlains will bring out the imperial regalia again, placing the sword, jewel and official seals on tables to the right and left of the emperor.
At the sound of a gong, a chamberlain and a lady-in-waiting will open the curtains, revealing the emperor and empress.
The Weight of the World
Naruhito will be dressed in a silk orange robe and a crown. Some reports say the robe is dyed with the juice of sumac berries, but others say it is merely a chemical dye. In any case, the color is meant to symbolize the orange hue of the sun when it reaches its highest point in the sky — Japan, after all, is the Land of the Rising Sun.
Masako will be wearing a multilayered kimono, in a design that dates to the 10th century and is known as itsutsuginu karaginu mo. The layers of cloth weigh close to 35 pounds. She will also wear a wig in an elaborate hairstyle that looks like stiff wings or large Mickey Mouse ears growing from the side of her head.
To Banzai or Not to Banzai
After the curtains are opened on the thrones, the guests will bow to the emperor (although instructions given to foreign dignitaries stipulate that they do not have to bow unless they choose to.)
The emperor will give a speech, and then Mr. Abe will lead the audience in three cheers of “Banzai!” — literally, “A thousand years!”
Right at the moment the prime minister shouts the first syllable of the first cheer, Japanese soldiers — signaled by a wireless command — will fire off 105-millimeter howitzers from a battery in Kitanomaru Park, about half a mile from the palace.
Critics say these cheers (again, foreigners can abstain), led as they are by the prime minister standing below the emperor on his podium, may violate Japan’s Constitution, which states that the emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”
But That’s Not All
Now, things get really interesting.
On the night of Nov. 14, the emperor will take part in another ceremony: a secret ritual, known as the daijosai, that occurs inside two of a series of temporary wooden buildings erected just for the occasion in the east gardens of the Imperial Palace.
Nobody knows for sure what happens during the rites, which have roots in Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. The emperor is said to offer rice and other specially prepared foods to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess from whom all emperors, according to legend, are descended.
In part of the ceremony, the emperor enters an inner sanctuary at night on his own, accompanied only by two ladies-in-waiting. Analysts and Shinto ritualists have offered different speculation about what, exactly, Naruhito will do in there while 1,000 guests wait outside.
There is a bed inside the sanctum, so some say the emperor lies down with his ancestors and enters into spiritual communion with the gods. Others say he actually becomes a god (though the emperor’s godlike status was annulled by the Americans after World War II). Another theory holds that he has a conjugal visit with the sun goddess.
What bothers some critics is that about 2.1 billion yen — or more than $19 million — in taxpayer funds is spent on a religious ceremony.
The Japanese Communist Party is boycotting the festivities to protest what it sees as a constitutional violation. Even Crown Prince Akishino, Naruhito’s younger brother, questioned whether the state should be financing a religious rite.
For now, the criticism is tempered in part by the fact that the imperial family remains beloved in Japan: According to a September poll by NHK, the public broadcaster, more than 70 percent of respondents said they felt an affinity for the family.
But in the longer term, the imperial household faces a more existential threat. It is running out of heirs. After the current emperor, his only successors are his 53-year-old brother, Akishino, and Akishino’s son, the 13-year-old Hisahito. Naruhito’s 83-year-old uncle, Hitachi, is also technically in line.
Unless the Imperial Household Law is revised to admit women as heirs to the throne, the teenage Hisahito could be the end of the line, and debates over the validity of enthronement ceremonies and their cost could be moot.
Research was contributed by Makiko Inoue, Hisako Ueno and Eimi Yamamitsu.