Japan prince wades into controversy over imperial rite funding

Prince Akishino (left), seen here with his wife Princess Kiko, will become crown prince in 2019 when his brother Crown Prince Naruhito takes over as emperor.
Prince Akishino (left), seen here with his wife Princess Kiko, will become crown prince in 2019 when his brother Crown Prince Naruhito takes over as emperor. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - A senior Japanese prince has issued rare public criticism of the government over plans to spend state funds on religious rites related to the enthronement of a new emperor next year.

Prince Akishino, the younger son of the emperor, will become crown prince in 2019 when his father steps down and his brother Crown Prince Naruhito takes over.

He took the highly unusual step of wading into a controversy about whether using state funds for an enthronement ritual would violate a constitutional principle separating state and religion.

Speaking at a press conference last week that was made public on Friday (Nov 30), he said the Daijosai ritual that will take place in November next year "has a highly religious nature".

"I wonder if it is appropriate to finance this highly religious thing with state funds," he said, adding that he had expressed his opposition to the government's Imperial Household Agency chief, but he "didn't listen to me".

Local media said agency chief Shinichiro Yamamoto reacted by apologising, but saying the agency had clearly explained its decision-making process to the prince.

Prince Akishino's remarks are considered surprising given a constitutional prohibition on imperial interference in political affairs.

"If his remarks were taken as objecting to (the government's decision on) public funding, they could amount to a violation," a source in the Prime Minister's Office told the Kyodo news agency.

However, deputy chief cabinet secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters that Prince Akishino had "expressed his personal views" and "there is no constitutional problem, as they have no influence on national politics".

The prince's comments come as a group of Japanese citizens, including members of Christian groups and Buddhist monks, prepare to sue the government over its plans to use taxpayer money for several enthronement rites.

Similar suits were filed against the government when the current emperor was enthroned in 1989 and again in 1990 over rituals following the death of Emperor Hirohito.

All of those cases were thrown out and the government said on Friday it was "not considering fresh action" on the controversy.

Prince Akishino will become first in line to the throne after the enthronement of Prince Naruhito on May 1 next year, a day after his father Emperor Akihito steps down.

A series of ceremonies will take place around the enthronement, culminating in the November Daijosai thanksgiving ritual.