Breaking with centuries of tradition, Emperor Akihito has let it be known he wishes to be cremated in a simple ceremony after his death.
Not only that, he wants the same for Empress Michiko and for their remains to be interred together rather than entombed separately in mausoleums, according to the Imperial Household Agency.
Shingo Haketa, the grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, told a news conference April 26 that, in accordance with the imperial couple's wishes, the agency is giving consideration to going back to the older tradition of cremation, instead of the relatively modern practice of burial.
He said the agency is also considering reducing mausoleum sizes and entombing the imperial couple together.
Cremating their bodies would mark a major turning point in the ritual history of the imperial institution, where the tradition of burial has been practiced since the mid-17th century, shortly after the start of the Edo Period (1603-1867).
In recent years, the 78-year-old emperor has been in poor health. The empress is a year younger than him.
According to the Imperial Household Agency, the emperor and empress want to minimize the impact on people's lives by having their funeral rites simplified.
The imperial couple pointed out that cremation is the norm among ordinary Japanese and that historically emperors and empresses were cremated, agency officials said.
As for smaller mausoleums, the emperor pointed out those for his father, Hirohito (1901-1989), posthumously known as Emperor Showa, and his mother Nagako (1903-2000), posthumously known as Empress Kojun, were built in nonparallel geometry on the Musashi mausoleum grounds in the western Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, leaving little space for more imperial mausoleums in the future, the agency officials said.
Historically, there have been instances where imperial funerals were simplified on the basis of the individual's last will and testament. For example, the ashes of Emperor Junna (786-840) were dispersed in the ninth century.
However, it is rare for an emperor's wishes on this issue to be made public while he is still alive, sources said.
After Haketa assumed the post of grand steward in 2005, Akihito and Michiko informally consulted the Imperial Household Agency about simple funerals for themselves, including cremation and entombment together.
They have also made their wishes known to immediate family members, including Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Fumihito.
The Imperial Household Agency decided to wait until the emperor had recovered from his Feb. 18 coronary artery bypass surgery before publicizing his and Michiko's wishes. This is because the agency wanted to avoid rumors spreading on the basis of inaccurate information, sources said.
There are apparently four reasons for publicizing the imperial couple's wishes while they are still alive.
First, Akihito and Michiko are determined not to place too much of a burden on their subjects and state finances, which are stretched because of the sluggish economy and last year's Great East Japan Earthquake.
Second, both Akihito and Michiko are both in their late 70s and have health issues.
Third, if their wishes are publicized after their deaths, there may not be sufficient time for government preparations and gaining public understanding.
Fourth, Haketa, 70, a trusted adviser whom the imperial couple consulted on the issue, will shortly retire as grand steward.
According to the Imperial Household Agency, emperors were buried in ancient times. It said the practice of cremation was introduced in 703 for the funeral of Empress Jito (645-702), when Buddhist influence was flourishing.
Cremation became the norm in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). The agency said 41 emperors had been cremated.
Burial was revived in 1654 for the funeral of Emperor Gokomyo (1633-1654).
Cremation remained an option, but was abolished when Emperor Komei (1831-1866) died.
Imperial burial rituals were organized as Shinto ceremonies in retro style during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) amid a push to purge Buddhism and re-establish Shinto as a state-supported religion.
Burial rites with pomp and pageant were stipulated in an imperial funeral ordinance under Japan's imperial Constitution.
With Japan's defeat in World War II, the emperor was redefined as the symbol of the state under the Constitution of Japan, and the former imperial funeral ordinance was abolished.
However, the funeral of Hirohito, whose reign spanned both prewar and postwar years, was held mostly in line with the former imperial funeral ordinance.
His supersized coffin was borne on a supersized palanquin and buried in a grandiose mausoleum in a ceremony that cost more than 9.7 billion yen ($120 million).
Nagako, Hirohito's consort, was also buried in a mausoleum almost as big.
Other imperial family members have been cremated and interred as couples.
The Imperial Household Agency said two imperial couples are known to have been entombed together in the past: Emperor Senka (467-539) and his consort and Emperor Tenmu (?-686) and Empress Jito.
Conservative elements of society may raise a hue and cry about the discussions of imperial cremation, but the Imperial Household Agency said it hoped they would understand.
In today's Shinto funerals, bodies are almost always cremated.
The agency has already reserved, albeit informally, a special crematorium to fulfill the imperial couple's wishes.
Akihito is the first emperor to start out as a symbol of state from the moment of his enthronement. He wed a commoner, and has a common touch that strikes a chord with the public.
At times, he has dropped to his knees to carry on a conversation rather than talk down to people.
The decision to be cremated apparently reflects his strong bond with the public.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, referring to the issue, said the government will consider simplified imperial funeral rituals in the future.
"I think necessary adjustments will be made with the Imperial Household Agency as the need arises in the future," Fujimura told a news conference on April 26.
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