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Japanese prince wants royals to fund Shinto rite, not public

In this Nov. 22, 2018, photo provided by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko attend a press conference ahead of his birthday at their residence in Tokyo. Prince Akishino, Emperor Akihito's second son, celebrated his 53rd birthday on Nov. 30. (Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Prince Akishino said a highly religious ritual that is part of next year’s succession ceremonies should be paid for privately by the Imperial family, and questioned the government’s decision to use public money.

Emperor Akihito’s younger son spoke about the contentious issue in a news conference that was recorded for his 53rd birthday on Friday. Akihito plans to abdicate next year and will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito. Akishino would then become first in line of succession.

Akishino said that using public funds for the Daijosai, the first communion that the new emperor performs with Shinto gods, is questionable since Japan’s Constitution separates religion and state.

The ritual is expected in mid-November next year, and the government has announced that it would cover the cost, following the precedent set at the time of Akihito’s succession 30 years ago. The cost of that rite alone was 2.25 billion yen ($20 million), though the government is expected to spend slightly less next year. The palace budget this year for the Imperial family’s private activities, including religious ones, is about one-seventh of that amount, and Akishino said the ceremony could be scaled down to reduce its cost.

“It’s a royal family event, and it is highly religious,” Akishino told reporters. “The question is if it is appropriate to use government funds to cover the cost of such a highly religious event.” He said he thinks the ritual held for his father should not have been funded by the government, and that he still holds that view.

The government has already decided to follow the previous example, he said. “Personally, I still feel awkward … I still believe (the ritual) should be covered by the Imperial family budget.” He said he conveyed his views about the upcoming event to palace officials, but they “would not listen to me.”

The constitutionality of government funding of the Daijosai ritual has long split legal experts and public opinion.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday that there will be no change in the government decision to fund the ritual. The government, after an examination by a panel of experts, concluded that the rite is too religious to be considered an official duty of the emperor but is a key part of the succession ceremony and therefore deserves government funding.

The prince’s rare expression of views opposing the government’s position topped Japanese newspapers and television talk shows Friday. They also highlighted the contrast between the conservative and hawkish stance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government and the Imperial family’s views, seen as liberal and pacifist.

“Differences of views between the conservatives and the royal family are quite significant,” Hideya Kawanishi, a Nagoya University historian and expert on Japan’s monarchy, said recently.

While Abe has pushed to expand Japan’s military role and stopped apologizing to Asian victims of World War II since taking office six years ago, the emperor has stepped up his expressions of remorse over Japan’s wartime actions, and he and his two sons have repeatedly expressed their support for the country’s pacifist constitution.

“What (Akishino) said makes sense,” Sota Kimura, a liberal-leaning expert on the constitution, told NHK public television. “The government should have studied how to carry out the ritual next year rather than merely following the previous example.”

But Hidetsugu Yagi, a constitutional scholar and Abe adviser, criticized Akishino, calling his comments about the government’s budget decision “political” interference.

Members of the Japanese royal family rarely speak out about their views, in part because the emperor was stripped of political power after Japan’s defeat in World War II, which was fought in the name of Akihito’s father, Hirohito, when he was revered as god. Hirohito renounced that status and the emperor’s position has become symbolic under the postwar constitution.

Abe’s ruling party and his government want the emperor to be a more authoritative figure. The government and his supporters are campaigning for constitutional revisions that would restore Japan’s pre-war paternalistic social values under the Imperial family.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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