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Inside the Niinamesai: The Emperor’s Most Difficult Ritual



 The Emperor continues to privately conduct the Niinamesai rituals. This picture was taken by the Imperial Household Agency in November 23, 2013, when he celebrated his 80th birthday. 


Labor Thanksgiving Day is a Japanese national holiday celebrated on November 23rd. Even within Japan, however, most people aren’t aware this particular date was inherited from a pre-1945 imperial holiday called Niinamesai. Under the American Occupation, General Douglas MacArthur abolished all holidays based on traditional Shinto myths, rituals, and ceremonies. Thus, a 1948 law officially erased the name Niinamesai.


Nonetheless, within the Shinkaden Hall of the Imperial Palace, the Emperor continues to privately conduct the Niinamesai rituals. What happens during this “most significant and most grueling of all the Imperial rituals”?




At 6:00 PM on the 23rd, the “evening rites” of the Niinamesai begin. Clad in white ceremonial robes made of silk, the Emperor proceeds from the Ryōkiden Hall to the Shinkaden, where the ritual is conducted. These robes—called gosaifukuare only used for the Niinamesai by the Emperor. Due to their weight, they can take over half an hour to don.



One of the ritual officials who presides over the ceremony, upon seeing “His Imperial Majesty at worship” clad in white and proceeding towards the Shinkaden in a passageway lit only by torches, remarked to us the ceremony “conveys His Imperial Majesty’s feelings of determination and mission to pray for the sake of the nation and its citizens. His countenance is of a completely different character than his visits to various parts of the country or meetings with citizens.”


During the ceremony, it is forbidden to even approach the Shinkaden ritual hall. Only two servants assist the Emperor in his observation of the rites. During the ritual, the Emperor offers rice presented from various parts of the country, rice harvested at the palace, and wine made from freshly harvested rice and millet to the enshrined ancestors and spirits.


Next, a text called Otsugebumi is read, praying for a fruitful bounty of grains and for the happiness of the nation and its people. Part of the wine and food offering is consumed in an act called Naorai. Finally, the Crown Prince proceeds from the Ryōkiden and joins his father in prayer at the Shinkaden, after which the two leave the hall together.


The “evening rites” are completed at 8:00 PM. Following the traditional proceedings, from 11:00 PM that night to 1:00 AM on the 24th, the “daybreak rites” are conducted. The ceremonies each last two hours—totaling four hours.


Most of the proceedings are carried out with the Emperor sitting in seiza, wearing heavy robes which are difficult to move in. Because of this, as the Niinamesai approaches each year, the Emperor is known to sit seiza for long times in order to accommodate himself to the position. Yet another reason this ritual is called “grueling” is because of the temperature. In late November, during the evening when the ritual is held, temperatures can sometimes dip below 10 degrees Celcius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), and there is no heating in the Shinkaden. An Imperial Household Agency official notes that “the cold itself puts considerable stress on the body. This must be all the more so as His Majesty reaches the age of 84 this year.”



Considering the burden on the Emperor’s body, after he reached age 75—roughly a decade ago—the final 30 minutes of the daybreak rites were abbreviated. After age 77, the evening rites were similarly contracted. After age 80, his participation at the daybreak rites was curtailed. For comparison, Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) ceased participation in the daybreak rites at age 69 and, later, the evening rites at age 70.


According to the Imperial Household Agency, when the current Emperor reached the age when the daybreak rites were halted for his father, it was suggested that he might do the same, but he indicated a strong wish that they “proceed as before.” After undergoing a bypass surgery of his coronary arteries, the Emperor's current position is somewhat relaxed, but an official told us that “even now, his feeling that he must do everything he can has not changed.”


Even today, the Emperor refuses to sleep until he has received a report from a chamberlain that the rituals have been successfully completed by an Imperial Household official representing him, which happens after 1:00 AM. According to one official, “In his video message offered last August, His Majesty indicated his duty as ceremonial emperor with the words, ‘all my body and all my spirit.’ His attitude at the Niinamesai makes manifest those intentions.”


On December 1, the Imperial Household Council will convene to consider matters such as the Emperor’s abdication and a schedule for the change of imperial era. The Emperor is currently expected to abdicate in the spring of 2019. Therefore, next year will be his final planned Niinamesai.


Niinamesai at Aomori


Koichiro Ito is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun City news department.




(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)



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