TOKYO - Wearing the white silk robes of a high Shinto priest, Japan's Emperor Akihito communed with his mythical ancestor the Sun Goddess last night in a torchlight enthronement ritual that was clouded by controversy over the constitutional separation of religion and state.
The government-financed religious ceremony climaxed Akihito's elaborate rite of passage into emperorship, which began nearly two years ago with the death of his father, Hirohito.
Tradition dictated that Akihito celebrate his formal enthronement only after a year of mourning had passed and sacred rice had been grown and harvested for the Daijosai, or Great Food Offering. In a secular ceremony held Nov. 12 and attended by representatives of 158 nations, Akihito announced his accession to the world.
The meaning of the Daijosai is shrouded in mystery and obscured by the vicissitudes of an imperial succession that spans more than a millennium, but in its essence it is a ritual of thanksgiving.
Akihito, surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens, offered freshly harvested rice and millet and an array of other foods from the land and the sea to the Sun Goddess. He also recited a prayer beseeching her to promote the welfare of the Japanese people, according to a description of the private ceremony by Imperial Household Agency officials.
The ritual continued until dawn today, as Akihito repeated the offerings in two primitive huts built on the grounds of the Imperial Palace - one representing western Japan, the other eastern Japan.
To some conservative Japanese, the secretive rites symbolized Emperor Akihito's final transformation into a divine being. Various interpretations of the rite, some with scholarly grounding, hold that Akihito receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or joins with her in symbolic sexual union - a theory that derives from the presence of vestigial straw beds in the huts.
The government and the Imperial Household Agency have vehemently denied that the ceremony
contains any such symbolism. Television cameras were not allowed into the ritual compound, but officials insisted that Akihito would not even touch the ceremonial beds.
Still, the left-wing intelligentsia and Japan's Christian minority note that Akihito is repeating the same Daijosai rite that was believed to have deified his father, Hirohito, 62 years ago. Hirohito was worshiped as a living god but renounced his divinity after Japan's defeat in World War II. Yet critics contend that the government violated the postwar constitution's separation of religious and state affairs by spending $17 million to finance the rite.
Several peaceful demonstrations were held across Japan yesterday to protest the Daijosai, and some Christians staged a hunger strike. In a continuation of a series of minor acts of violence that marred the enthronement rite on Nov. 12, leftist radicals were blamed for setting a fire that destroyed a Shinto shrine in southern Japan and for firing homemade mortars at an imperial villa in Kyoto.
Despite the intense interest in the enthronement rites from the extreme left and the far right, including the country's conservative political elite, many ordinary Japanese professed a lack of interest in the event. In a survey by the Yomiuri newspaper at the beginning of the month, as many as 46.4 percent of the respondents said that they had little or no interest in the enthronement. Only 12.9 percent said that they had a strong interest.
No foreigners were invited to the Daijosai. Nearly 900 Japanese dignitaries attended the first half of the ceremony dressed in formal clothing and taking seats under tents outside the sanctuary.
The demonstrations continued today as about 2,400 people in two cities protested the enthronement ceremonies and the government's proposal to send members of the military overseas.
In downtown Tokyo, 300 police stood guard as about 1,400 people marched on busy streets chanting ``Destroy the rituals!'' No injuries were reported, although police said they made two arrests.
In Osaka, almost 1,000 people performed music and danced to protest the ceremonies.
Akihito's father, Hirohito, was used to rally support for Japanese aggression in World War II.
``Our country will repeat its history if Japanese citizens allow the emperor's enthronement rituals,'' warned Yosuke Sugi, a leader of the ultra-leftist Chukaku-ha group.
The demonstrators also opposed an unsuccessful bill introduced by the governing Liberal Democratic Party that would have allowed the dispatch of Japan's military overseas as part of international peacekeeping efforts.