According to the Imperial Household Ministry, the New Year’s greeting held at the Imperial Palace on January 2nd attracted 126,720 visitors, the biggest crowd ever during the Heisei period. The imperial family emerged to greet well-wishers five times over the course of the day.
This attendance figure surpasses 1994 (Heisei 6), the year after Princess Masako’s marriage, when 111,700 visitors visited the palace over the space of 8 greetings.
It is believed that the turnout increased due to upcoming changes in the imperial household. This is the first New Year’s greeting after it was announced that the reigning Emperor would abdicate the throne on April 30, 2019. Furthermore, Princess Mako of Akishino plans to marry in November 2018, making this her last appearance at the New Year’s greeting. Princess Kako of Akishino was not present, as she is currently studying abroad in the United Kingdom.
Hopes for ‘A Calm and Spiritually Rich Year’
At 10:10 AM, the current Emperor, who is 84, joined the Empress, the Crown Prince and Princess, and other members of the imperial family for the first public greeting. His Majesty offered the following words: “Happy New Year. I am sincerely grateful to be able to celebrate the new year with all of you today. I am hoping that this will be a calm and spiritually rich year for many people. As the new year begins, I pray for the happiness of our country and for all the people of the world.”
The public new year’s greeting was held five times. According to the Imperial Household Agency, the turnout in front of the gate for the first greeting was 20,509 visitors, nearly twice last year’s 11,554. The gate opened 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time of 9:30 AM.
After many complications, the day of the Emperor’s abdication has been fixed for April 30, 2019. Initially, the government planned that the Emperor would resign at the end of 2018, and his son would take the throne on January 1, 2019. However, the Imperial Household Ministry considered that this would cause “difficulties.” On the first day of the year, the Emperor prays for the peace of the nation and the happiness of the people before the break of dawn. Afterwards, he and the Empress are offered new year’s congratulations by family members, parliamentarians, and foreign dignitaries. As New Year’s Day is the busiest day of the Emperor’s year, it was felt that it would be physically impossible to hold the ceremony of abdication on the same day.
Predawn Prayers for the Happiness of the People
At 5AM on January 1st, His Majesty the Emperor of Japan formally opens the new year with the Prayer to the Four Directions. He faces in turn the shrine of Ise, which enshrines the Imperial Ancestor Amaterasu Ōmikami, the imperial tombs, then the gods of each of the four directions, praying for a bountiful harvest, the peace of the nation, and the happiness of the people.
Believed to have its origins in the Asuka period of the mid-7th century AD, this ceremony took its current form in the early Meiji period (late 19th century). It is generally conducted in the Shinkaden hall, which lies adjacent to the three palace sanctuaries and the Emperor’s quarters, but owing to the Emperor’s physical condition, since 2012 (Heisei 24) the ceremony has been moved to the Emperor’s quarters when the winter cold is severe.
Simultaneous with the Prayer to the Four Directions, in the three palace sanctuaries, the Head Officiant presides over the Saitensai, a prayer to the gods and imperial ancestors for protection of Japan’s people. This was initially presided over by the Emperor himself, but since 2012, the Head Officiant has taken over out of consideration for the Emperor’s health. However, even after 2012, when the Emperor returns to his quarters, he and the Empress remain in repose until the Saitensai is completed. The Crown Prince, who is preparing to be crowned Emperor in 2019, also participates in the Saitensai.
Successive Rites of Celebration
After 9 AM, the New Year’s greetings proceed regularly at the three palace sanctuaries. First, the Grand Chamberlain and his aides present the initial greeting congratulations in the Emperor’s quarters. The delegation then moves to the palace, where greetings are exchanged with the Director General of the Imperial Household Agency and his staff, the Emperor’s counselors and senior advisors called goyōgakari. Following this, the Crown Prince and Princess formally greet the Emperor and Empress for the first time in the new year, opening a ceremony called shukuga-no-gi or the “rites of celebration.”
Greetings are also exchanged with former members of the Imperial household and relatives, the Emperor’s granddaughter Princess Toshinomiya, and the Emperor’s grandson Prince Hisahito of Akishino. The rites of celebration continue throughout the morning with formal greetings from the chiefs of the three branches of government, including Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, as well as members of the Diet and other officials.
Inside the palace, rooms are prepared for each of the officials involved in the greetings, and the Emperor proceeds to each room as the rites continue. After a brief break for lunch with the imperial family, the ceremony continues in the afternoon with greetings for active and former Imperial Guards, followed by a joint greeting with foreign ambassadors and their partners to complete the “rites of celebration.”
During these rites, the Emperor and male members of the imperial family are clothed in decorated tailcoats, while female members of the household wear a long dress. Other than the Empress, who pleads the frailty of age, the women have a formal dress weighed with decorations and a tiara. The rites of celebration for the new year are considered national ceremonies as specified in the Japanese Constitution.
After the public New Year’s greeting on the 2nd, on January 3rd the Emperor continues formal Shinto rituals in the three palace sanctuaries, praying for the prosperity of the nation and its people in a rite called Genshisai. On the 4th, another rite is performed called Sōjihajime, a continuation of the pre-war ritual opening of government affairs called Matsurigotohajime. Following the promulgation of the current Japanese Constitution in 1949, it is said that this rite was changed to an announcement by the Head Officiant of the previous year’s rituals at Ise Grand Shrine and within the palace.