Tokyo: During a very old ceremony, which occurs only once per era in Japan, members of the Imperial Palace determined the place of imperial rice cultivation in an unorthodox way: the careful examination of shells of a threatened species of turtle.
Two thin curved plates, made of carapace, were thus heated over a flame to reveal cracks. Verdict: Rice, necessary for an important autumn ceremony presided over by the new Emperor Naruhito, will be harvested in the former capital of Kyoto and north of Tokyo, in Tochigi Prefecture.
Images of Monday's ceremony, which Naruhito did not take part in, show participants dressed in long black robes and adorned hats, walking in procession to a white and black striped tent to bring the two fragments in a box.
The very rare ritual was last performed in 1990, about a year after Naruhito's father, Akihito, acceded to the Chrysanthemum throne. Although the carapaces are made from green turtles, a threatened marine species, they are taken as part of a conservation program for the species, officials said.
The reptiles come from the Ogasawara Islands, located in the Pacific about a thousand kilometers from the Tokyo metropolis but of which they are administratively part. People in the area have been eating turtles since the mid-19th century and are allowed to catch 135 turtles per year. A hundred is used for meat (consumed raw) and carapaces are used for crafts.
As for the others, their eggs are taken to ensure a stable population, and they are then released at sea. The carapaces of eight turtles are provided to the Imperial Palace, but they were not killed for this purpose.
"Real conservation efforts" are being made, AFP official Takeshi Ando told AFP, adding that the number of outbreaks was increasing. The village only captures large turtles, whose shells exceed 75 cm long, as required by the Tokyo government, he said.
This tradition that "goes back to ancient times" must "be passed on", assured a Palace official, while being aware of the fact that some consider that a threatened animal should not be used for it. Rice from the designated plots will be used in mid-November for a ceremony during which the emperor will thank and pray for the abundance of crops and for the peace of Japan.