imperial throne
imperial throne Wikimedia Commons

Japan's new Emperor Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on October 22, in a grand culmination of a long-drawn-out coronation ritual. But the Japanese royal coronation rituals, steeped in centuries-old royal conventions, will not be complete until the newly crowned emperor spends a night with the Sun Goddess.

The custom known as the 'Night with the Goddess' will take place on Thursday, when Naruhito will go into the ornate chambers of the Goddess and symbolically spend a night of union with her. The whole idea of the union between the goddess and the Emperor is awash in mythological beliefs. In ancient times, the custom marked the achievement of divinity by the Emperor.

What is the Night with the Goddess?

Japanese Emperor Naruhito
Japanese Emperor Naruhito Wikimedia Commons

The ceremony known as 'Daijosai' is a major religious rite associated with the Japanese coronation. As per this ritual, the new Emperor Naruhito will enter a custom-built shrine in the evening and symbolically spend the night with Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. What happens in the next several hours is a mixture of Worship, prayers and a ritualistic feast. The Emperor emerges from the shrine at 3.am in the morning. With this custom completed, the Emperor completes his ascension to the throne succeeding Emperor Akihito.

What happens in the shrine with the Goddess?

The purpose of the symbolic ceremony is to relive the ancient myths that identify the emperor as the descendent of the Sun Goddess. "Extreme interpretations of the accession ceremonies held that, at one point in the proceedings, the new emperor spent a night alone with the Sun Goddess and had sexual intercourse with her," says historian John Brownlee in Japanese Historians and the National Myths.

Who is Amaterasu Omikami?

The ancient Japanese worshipped the sun goddess named Amaterasu Omikami. Amaterasu is held as the ancestress of Japan's Imperial house. The 'unification' with Amaterasu Omikami renders the Japanese Emperor the status of a living god.

What are modern-day rituals in the night with the goddess?

On Thursday, Naruhito will enter the dimly-lit shrine and kneel before a white straw mat, where goddess Omikami is thought to be resting. The shrine maidens then bring in offerings for the goddess and the emperor partakes in the food. The offerings mostly consist of rice delicacies served in oak leaves. The Emperor then drinks the traditional rice wine with the goddess, it is believed.

"There is a bed, there is a coverlet, and the Emperor keeps his distance from it," John Breen of Kyoto's International Research Center for Japanese Studies, told Reuters.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako Imperial Household Agency, Japan

When did the custom start?

The Night with the Goddess is thought to have started some 1,400 years ago. The rituals went uninterrupted for several centuries. The major disruption happened some 300 years back. The ceremony, however, was brought back in the late 18th century.

What is the controversy surrounding the ceremony?

This years' coronation ceremony has attracted its share of controversies. Imperial celebrations in post-war Japan have often been subject of controversy. The critics have questioned the spending of public money on the elaborate and expensive coronation rituals. Critics also point out the paradox of ascribing divinity to the royal figurehead in the modern, post-war age.