Originally created 11/17/99

Legacy of last god-king lingers



TOKYO -- When Emperor Hirohito died, one of the largest gatherings of presidents, kings and prime ministers ever assembled came to Tokyo for the funeral. For better or worse, no Japanese had ever made such a deep impact on world history.

Now, Japan celebrates the 10th anniversary of the enthronement of Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito. But the legacy of Japan's last god-king and the war fought in his name still looms over the world's oldest throne.

Japan's government marked Akihito's anniversary Friday with a parade, concerts and memorials in and around the moat-ringed Imperial Palace.

Akitaka Saiki, spokesman for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, said the event's tone reflected Akihito's desire to be more accessible than his enigmatic father, while maintaining the dignity of the throne.

"The Japanese people have the feeling of closeness, much closer than they had expected before this emperor was enthroned," Mr. Saiki said. "The emperor has done an excellent job of fulfilling his duty as a symbol of the nation."

Yet sensitivities still run deep.

Christian groups and leftists who oppose the monarchy planned to protest recent moves by the government that they say are aimed at reviving the kind of nationalism associated with the early years of Hirohito's reign.

They are particularly angry over a directive for all government offices and public schools to fly the Rising Sun flag for the anniversary.

The flag is a touchy subject. Parliament gave the Rising Sun official status only a few months ago over strong objections that it was too closely associated with World War II and should be replaced.

"This is a democracy," said Nobuaki Nakagawa of the 200,000-member United Church of Christ in Japan. "The government says all people should celebrate, but we shouldn't be forced to."

Most historians agree that Hirohito, more figurehead than ruler, did not play a central role in Japan's decision-making during World War II, though he is believed to have tipped the scales in favor of surrender.

And most Japanese remember Hirohito not as the uniform-clad emperor on the white horse of wartime propaganda, but as a shy amateur scientist and nature lover -- an image cultivated throughout the later half of his 63-year reign.

Even so, Hirohito came to personify the issue of war guilt that Japan has struggled with through the postwar years. And along with the throne, Akihito has inherited that historical burden.

"The emperor bears responsibility for World War II, not so much as an individual, but because of the imperial institution he represents," Mr. Nakagawa said.

Akihito assumed the throne when Hirohito died Jan. 7, 1989. But his enthronement was not completed until November of the next year, when he partook in an ancient ritual in which he is said to commune with the sun goddess.

According to legend, Akihito is 125th in a royal line begun by Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C. The ceremony, steeped in Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, has been a part of Japanese enthronement traditions for more than 1,000 years.

But Akihito's communion was highly controversial because Hirohito renounced his divine status after the war. Akihito was the first emperor to assume the throne under Japan's postwar constitution, which defines the emperor as a ceremonial symbol of the nation and not a living god.

Lawsuits questioning the constitutionality of the rite are pending in Japanese courts.

The legacy of Hirohito's era is perhaps most strongly felt, however, in what has come to be called "palace diplomacy."

Akihito and Empress Michiko have traveled abroad frequently since his enthronement. In statements prepared and approved by the government, the emperor has been careful to express his regrets over the war to Japan's former enemies.

But pockets of anger remain.

Hundreds of former POWs booed him when he visited London last year. Concerns over a similar display have kept Akihito from visiting South Korea, which Japan ruled as a colony from 1910 to 1945 and where animosity toward the Japanese remains especially strong.

Changing that might soon become the biggest test of Akihito's ability to get beyond the past. Japan and South Korea will be co-hosts of soccer's World Cup in 2002, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung repeatedly has expressed hope for an imperial visit to Seoul before the event begins.

South Koreans remain split over whether Akihito would be a welcome guest, but surveys suggest support is increasing, especially among the young.

"I think it's about time," said Kim Hyun-woo, a 27-year-old computer engineer in Seoul. "I know older people who experienced the Japanese colonial rule would feel uncomfortable, but we cannot keep looking back at the past."

Some Japanese fear that may be impossible.

"The past is a problem that we haven't been able to clear up even after more than 50 years," said Kenji Aida, an insurance company employee in Tokyo. "I wonder if even the next emperor will have to keep shouldering this burden."