SHINTO MEETS CHANEL : An Imperial Family Steeped in Tradition Searches for a Clear Identity as Japan Struggles to Update the Myth of Its Chrysanthemum Throne

<i> Nina J. Easton is the magazine</i> 's<i> staff writer. Her last article was "America's Mean Streak." </i>

“ASK ME HER FAVORITE FOOD. GO AHEAD--ASK ME.” PIGTAILS BOBBING, Aki Nakao can barely contain herself. Like teen-age girls throughout Japan, she has lapped up every inane detail about the life of Crown Princess-to-be Masako Owada that the press has generously dished out since January’s announcement of the imperial engagement. Now Aki is eager to share her knowledge with foreigners visiting her high school English class in Kobe.


“No,” Aki pipes in triumphantly, “The answer is curried rice--ask me something else.”

The game goes on, as the 40 other girls in the class--dressed in navy suits and maroon ascots, one version of the ubiquitous Japanese student uniform--giggle and whisper, sharing their views of Masako Owada as “pretty” and “humble.” The image of Owada, a former diplomat, as a tough-minded career woman doesn’t register here: Only a handful of these girls predict that their own lives will combine marriage and children with a profession, and even those students concede the goal is probably impossible. To these girls, Owada is a celebrity princess, a movie star behind a moat. They chatter on about the looks of her fiance, Crown Prince Naruhito, (B-minus, they seem to agree), about Owada’s reluctance to say “yes” to the prince, about the couple’s life together after Wednesday’s marriage ceremony.


An embarrassed silence falls only when the students are asked about the origins of Japan’s imperial family. Foreheads wrinkle and heads bow as they vainly try to hide their ignorance of their nation’s founding myth by vigorously flipping through the pages of textbooks lying on their desks.

Later that day, in a suburban home outside this port city, a conversation about the imperial family takes on a different hue. Four kimono-clad women have just completed the rigors of their weekly tea-ceremony class and have retired to their teacher’s parlor. There is a cherry blossom in each teacup and a warm rapport in the room: We’ve ooh’d and ah’d over their masterly tea-ceremony techniques, and they’ve laughed whimsically at our awkward attempts to imitate them. It seems as safe a time as any to broach one of the most sensitive subjects in Japan: the late Emperor Hirohito’s culpability for World War II.

Yuki, a 44-year-old divorced mother of two, has a story to tell. I learn later that she has never discussed this, even with her closest friends. But today she opens up. She describes the pain of her mother, who lost all of her siblings--eight brothers in all--on the battlefields of World War II, where solders shouting “Banzai!” (or “Long live the emperor!”) fought to the death in the name of their ruler.

“Where did they die?” I ask.

“We were never told. Maybe China . . . . My mother has never forgiven the emperor. Many have not,” she insists.

I’m eager to hear the views of the tea ceremony teacher, a woman old enough to see her young adulthood marred by the war. But she just shakes her head. Her students explain that it’s considered declasse for a woman in her position to criticize the emperor.

SUCH ARE THE UNEASILY PAIRED PERCEPTIONS OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUM Throne as Japan moves toward the 21st Century. The Japanese see their monarchs both as a family of modern-day celebrities and tradition-bound figures who cannot shake off the burden of their country’s troubled history. Even before the frenzy surrounding this week’s ceremony, Japan had witnessed the growing TV visibility of the 59-year-old Emperor Akihito, an accomplished marine biologist, his wife, Empress Michiko, and their three children--Crown Prince Naruhito, 33, Prince Akishino, 27, and Princess Sayako, 24. Their media prominence has prompted some frustrated imperial family-watchers to advocate shipping the whole clan from the center of Tokyo back to the ancient capital of Kyoto, closing them off to TV cameras and paparazzi press. Japan’s notoriously bland imperial family doesn’t offer up the kind of tantalizing scandal and gossip that the Brits do, but the surface details of their lives are oppressively ubiquitous.

Owada’s engagement to the crown prince conveniently took center stage just as the controversy over a famous sumo wrestler’s broken engagement to his actress girlfriend was winding down. Since then, reporters and photographers have camped outside Owada’s modern concrete-and-glass home southwest of central Tokyo. Personality magazines disclose everything from her blood type (a key to reading personalities in Japan) and her eating habits to the name of her pet Yorkshire terrier.

The Chrysanthemum Throne was once considered a semi-divine force in Japanese society. Today, the powers attributed to it are more down-to-earth: This year commentators widely predicted that excitement over the crown prince’s upcoming wedding would revive the nation’s sagging economy. There’s actually a bit of historical precedent for this seemingly preposterous display of wishful thinking: The wedding of the current emperor and empress in 1959 gave a nudge to the fledgling electronics industry as the public flocked to buy TV sets to view the event. Thirty-four years later, retailers report boom business selling Masako-style pearls and handbags, coats and dresses widely described as “New York yuppie fashion.” Copycat weddings are hot, with some brides dropping tens of thousands of dollars on imitations of Owada’s wedding kimono. One publication claimed that the Masako craze will generate nearly $30 million in sales tax alone--impressive but hardly a seismic economic jolt.

But beneath all the glitter and hype surrounding the imperial family are the discomfiting memories of World War II, a time the world still remembers for the Japanese military’s aggression and its atrocities in battle. Questions still abound about the wartime role of Emperor Hirohito, known as Showa for “enlightened peace” or “harmony” since his death in January, 1989. But one thing is clear: While he expressed “deep sadness” for this “unfortunate war,” he died without ever offering an overt apology.

“The British monarch stands over a long history that was quite successful,” says Kuniko Inoguchi, international relations professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “Our monarchy stands over a history with a lot of debts. The image of a happy, carefree monarchy is not there.” Indeed, ever since the emperor was forced to publicly renounce his divinity in 1946, the country has seemed unable to clarify its own past. Schoolchildren receive scant information about the emperor and his roots, either mythical or historic. To most of them, the emperor is less a father of the nation than a father of a tribe of cultural icons.

Events this year are forcing the Japanese to confront the imperial future, even as they struggle to reconcile the imperial past. Newspapers began 1993 with headlines about the upcoming wedding of the crown prince to a 29-year-old career woman who had spent much of her life in the United States and England--a striking surrender to contemporary values by this conservative institution. By April, the top of the news was the emperor’s visit to Okinawa, where nearly 200,000 soldiers and civilians died, thousands of them ordered to fight and pressured to commit suicide in the name of the emperor. The emperor’s offering up of condolences to Okinawans follows a similar outreach trip to China last year and suggests that Showa’s son is determined to make amends that his father never did.

Historically, Japan’s imperial family has remained in the background--unseen, yet central to the identity of the Japanese, a symbol not so much of the country as of what many Japanese believe to be the uniqueness of their character and the homogeneity of their race. Much of Japan considers itself as impervious and mysterious as the secret Shinto rituals that, even today, transform the emperor from man to the son of a goddess. Coming from a supposedly unbroken line of succession, the emperor is also a link to a history that many firmly believe sets Japan apart from the rest of the world.

“The meaning of the emperor in Japan has always been very deeply related to something religious, not necessarily connected with dogma or any sort of bible, but it is constructed with a sort of religious attitude. It’s hard to explain to an outsider,” Michiko Hasegawa, philosophy professor at Saitama University, explains as she trails off before trying again. “It’s similar to the feeling you would have for your own hometown. Japaneseness is deeply connected to a sense of localism.”

Hasegawa is one of those who believes that Japan’s culture is not only unique but also superior. Though in the presence of a Westerner, she will go no further than stating that it is superior to other Asian countries. According to the national myth--widely accepted as truth until Hirohito renounced his divinity--Japan’s 125th emperor comes from a continuous line of descendants that started with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Serious research into the actual history of the imperial line is sorely lacking, in part because archeological sites such as the imperial tombs have been largely closed off to scholarly research. But another reason may have more to do with uncomfortable facts that Japanese scholars might dig up if they seriously tried. Some Western historians theorize that the emperor’s family is actually descended from a Korean clan.

For most of Japan’s history, the emperor has been remarkably powerless, a spiritual, almost spooky figure whose mystique nevertheless translated into a strong charisma that could unify the nation during periods of crisis. In the book “Sons of Heaven,” author Jerrold M. Packard, writing about 13th-Century Japan, notes: “The world had never before nor has it since experienced a legally reigning monarch so politically emasculated over so long a period.” Instead, the country was run by shoguns, later by the military machine, and today by legislators and faceless bureaucrats.

The emperor during these years may have been “emasculated,” but he was also blameless. Even in the wake of World War II, most of the emperor’s subjects considered him above reproach, a figure too pure to answer to the pedestrian demands of political inquiry.

THE IMAGE OF JAPAN’S imperial family members as modest, self-sacrificing and spiritually pure is carefully cultivated by the secretive and protective government bureaucracy surrounding them--the Imperial Household Agency--and a submissive press that knows far more than it prints. A year ago the news media agreed to a blackout on reporting about the crown prince’s search for a bride so that a “calm atmosphere” could prevail around the process. The agency sought the agreement in reaction to increasingly aggressive and intrusive hounding by the press. Owada’s decision, after much reluctance, to accept the prince’s proposal was kept under wraps until an American reporter, the Washington Post’s T. R. Reid, disregarded the blackout and broke the news in January.

While several Japanese reporters later told Reid they’d never make such an agreement again, media watchers are skeptical that their editors--fearing a loss of access and, therefore, circulation--would ever openly defy the agency. Three years ago, when the crown prince’s younger brother, Akishino, was married amid much hoopla, a newspaper photographer who shot an “inappropriately” informal scene of Princess Kiko fixing her fiance’s hair was banished from the palace.

The Imperial Household Agency is an amalgamation of more than 1,000 permanent bureaucrats overseen by protective chamberlains, some of whom are former high-ranking government officials. The Imperial Council that oversaw investigation of prospective brides and eventually signed off on the Owada engagement consists of such top political figures as Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. The agency controls everything from what the family members wear (no loud colors, and a princess’s fashions should never upstage the empress) to what they say (some close imperial family-watchers insist the emperor would go further in his comments on World War II but is constrained by the bureaucracy).

If we’re to believe the agency, the imperial family members are conservative, early-to-bed, early-to-rise people who watch nature documentaries on TV when they’re not practicing music, crafting poetry or studying marine biology. And the image of the ideal, rather than the real, dominates coverage. Despite her dark complexion, the press now describes Owada as “fair-skinned.” It describes her personality as “serious but modest.” In one widely reported incident from a few years back, Owada became so fed up with the trail of cameras following her that she lost her cool and screamed at one photographer. Those familiar with the incident say she called him an insect--an insult of the lowest kind for the Japanese, especially coming from a woman. But history has since been rewritten with Owada snapping simply: “What company do you work for?”

Owada was hardly the Imperial Household’s top choice for the job of empress-to-be. A woman approaching 30 who speaks five languages, Owada’s friends describe her as a woman of quiet ambition, cultivated by a strong-willed mother and a father who is currently the highest-ranking career official in the Foreign Ministry. There was concern as well that Owada was too Americanized. She spent her formative high school years in Belmont, Mass., and attended the prestigious university one town over in Cambridge--Harvard. Later she picked up an economics degree from Tokyo University and a masters in international relations from Oxford University.

Any concerns the Imperial Household had about introducing this independent-minded, English-speaking, possibly non-virgin yuppie into the traditional imperial household were outweighed by a separate worry: By last December, the country was in a near tizzy over the 32-year-old crown prince’s inability to find a bride. In an embarrassing breach of court etiquette, the emperor’s heir had watched his younger, playboy brother get married first. Naruhito has a reputation for being serious and morally conservative. He speaks English, attended Oxford and has played his viola in concerts on television. But with his short stature and awkward haircut, Naruhito has never cut much of a dashing image. (One magazine gently chided his “do” by running a series of computer-generated photos of his face under different hairstyles.) He’d had his heart set on Owada since they first met in 1986.

Owada kept the prince at bay for six years, and stories abound about why she finally agreed, despite her insistence to friends that she would never live behind the moat. Some reports--denied by her father in interviews with foreign reporters--say she was under pressure from her ambitious parents. Others describe lovelorn phone calls from the prince and intense lobbying by an intermediary for both families. Still others say Owada agreed after a personal visit from Empress Michiko, who subtly offered her support and protection. Whatever the reality, it is widely known that Owada, like other children of the Foreign Ministry, was raised with a strong sense of patriotism and national duty. Accepting the crown prince’s proposal was the ultimate sacrifice for her country.

PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT image to a Japanese public that lives in cramped, no-frills houses and apartments is the illusion that their imperial family lives a modest life. Reporters covering the imperial engagement, for example, say they are under pressure not to disclose the actual costs of Owada’s chic wardrobe.

Certainly, compared to the gilt and pomp of Buckingham Palace, the emperor’s homesteads are modest. Last year, taxpayers allocated $68.8 million to the family; of that figure, only $5.3 million was spent on daily living expenses and estate upkeep. The bulk is spent on ceremonies and rituals. The upcoming wedding will cost $3.2 million, a source of consternation to some Japanese taxpayers.

Officially, Hirohito also amassed a private fortune, estimated conservatively at $9 million, that was passed on to his family when he died. But some independent accounts claim that the family’s fortune is much larger. The family owns 14 major properties around Japan, including the Imperial Palace grounds in the heart of Tokyo, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world; houses for extended family members; a bird sanctuary frequently used to entertain, and a ranch. A new $45.6-million, 62-room palace on the Tokyo grounds has just been completed. Another $5.5 million was spent to furnish it. But in an attempt to demonstrate his concern for the nation’s ailing economy, Emperor Akihito this spring dropped plans to build tennis courts on the complex.

The emperor’s subjects display a distinctly Japanese sense of protectiveness, sometimes verging on pity, for their ruler and his family. Castle life is viewed as prison-like, surrounded by a suffocating fortress of rules and bureaucrats. A recent poll of young Tokyo women found that 75% would not even consider marrying into the imperial family. Empress Michiko’s huge popularity dates back to the emotional troubles that befell her after she became the first commoner to marry into the imperial family; her subsequent nervous breakdown was reportedly the result of the psychological torture inflicted on her by members of the imperial family and their courtiers.

Initially, Owada risked a hostile reception by many Japanese--too kitsui was the word used to describe the severity and ambition supposedly evident on her face. But now, even this confident and accomplished woman draws sighs of sympathy: over her decision to give up a promising career, over the awkward yellow pillbox and matronly dress that officials forced her to wear for her first press conference, over the relentless hounding of an anxious press that dissects her every move.

“It’s very intuitive to Japan: Sympathy and admiration go hand in hand,” says Inoguchi of Sophia University. “If you’re very successful you face resentment. Sometimes we even emphasize problems so you don’t catch jealousies. If the imperial family lived a very good life, if they were very wealthy and had no problems, there might be some resentment. But the fact that Showa lived with the debt of history, that the current emperor suffers that same debt, and the empress has her own emotional problems that she successfully overcame--people feel a sympathy that’s a source of unifying power and attachment.”

Polls show that about 80% of the Japanese public favors maintaining the imperial system as is. But one recent survey found that while about half of the public had favorable or very favorable feelings toward the emperor’s family, 47% had no feelings one way or the other. Commentators say this disinterest in the institution is particularly prevalent among young professionals.

Still, to the large portion of the population that cares deeply, the emperor retains political, as well as cultural, import. A small but violent group of rightists routinely threaten those who publicly criticize the throne. An equally militant anti-imperialist movement on the left is notorious for shooting handmade rockets into imperial grounds.

But to the average citizen, the emperor is a ray of morality in a political system that seems daily to rise to new levels of corruption. He remains an unscathed spiritual and moral leader whom the Japanese can hold out to themselves, and to the rest of the world. “The prime minister might have to resign, but there’s no possibility that the emperor will resign,” says Yukihito Itoh, editor of the intellectual journal Foresight. “For many people that’s a source of stability. There may be very dirty politicians, but the emperor system is quite clean.” Masamichi Inoki, chairman of the Research Institute for Peace and Security and a former adviser to prime ministers, sees the emperor filling this void: “In Japan,” he says, “there are only politicians, not statesmen.”

IN A TOKYO SUBURB AN hour’s train ride from the heart of the city, eight housewives crowd around a friend’s dining room table to sip tea and offer their views on imperial goings-on. It’s afternoon, and all but the youngest of their children have been shuttled off to school clubs and lessons until dinner time. I’d been warned that these women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s--would be difficult to pry open on such a “touchy” subject. But the conversation is spirited and continues above the cacophony of crying toddlers.

Tomoko, eight months pregnant and juggling a clingy 2-year-old, quickly emerges as the most conservative and ardent defender of the imperial tradition. She says she’s fed up with the media’s outpouring of mindless details about Owada’s engagement. “I wish they would tell us about the things that we would want to know: What is the wedding going to be like, the ceremony itself, the tradition? The good things of the past continue; the emperor is very much a part of our history. Rather than equating it with some celebrity’s marriage, I’d rather see the differences. After all, they are the face of Japan . . . . I personally feel the emperor had an important role in unifying the country, especially in cases of war. As part of our pride in being Japanese, I think the emperor does retain an important identity.”

“I don’t feel that way at all.” Shigeko is a woman in her 40s with two teen-age children and a career in employee relations behind her. In contrast to Tomoko, who grew up in a small town, Shigeko is an urban woman who speaks English and has lived abroad. “They’re like a famous temple or shrine,” she says of Japan’s imperial family. “We look at them and say, oh, that’s Japanese. As individuals, we don’t have our own identity, so they make up for that. We don’t want them to disappear--I wouldn’t have a problem, but the country would have a problem.”

Shigeko has touched off a debate with her comment about Japanese identity, and the conversation breaks into pairs of squabbles. After the commotion subsides, we turn back to the wedding.

“They’re going to spend a lot of money on this wedding, and those are our taxes,” Shigeko says provocatively.

“We don’t have any complaints about it,” counters Yoko, a serious-faced woman in her 30s. “There are politicians using our taxes in worse ways. When I look at the lifestyle of the emperor’s family, they seem to live a relatively simple life, so I have nothing against spending money on their lifestyle.”

“The emperor leads a very simple life. He’s a simple man,” concurs Tomoko.

“His advisers are very good at handling their money, their own stocks, so I hear,” injects a lighthearted Michiko, as the room breaks into peals of laughter.

Yoko brings the discussion back to a more serious note. “Because of the emperor, we have some unity in our country. If not for him, these corrupt politicians would just do what they want. Who knows what would happen to our unified country? Internal corruption would be so bad that . . . .”

“I have nothing against the imperial family.” Shigeko wants to clarify her own point. “But I think the system is bad. They are using the imperial family--suddenly when the economy is going bad, the son is getting married to take attention away. Prime Minister Miyazawa knew about this engagement long before it was announced. If not for the wedding, our attention would be more focused on corrupt politicians and other problems. We can sit here and eat cake and sip tea out of china, but there are people who don’t know where their next meal will come from. This is a diversion for us--looking at the imperial family, reading about the imperial family. It keeps us from focusing on the things that really matter.”

Motoko, mother of two and married to a Japanese-American, has also lived abroad, in Los Angeles. But she seems less eager than Shigeko to challenge the established order. “They are alive and passing on history,” she says of the imperial family. “When you compare them to, say, the British court, you can say, ‘Oh, the Japanese are so moral; they have such noble qualities.’ ”

“It’s different when the Japanese prime minister goes to the United States than when the emperor goes,” says Kumiko, one of the quieter voices around the table. “They say that when the emperor met Ronald Reagan, (the President) looked very nervous and excited. I know our prime minister doesn’t have that effect on other world leaders. It’s the emperor who carries weight.” Kumiko’s comment is especially timely; Japan is still smarting from President Clinton’s undiplomatically sharp trade talk during Prime Minister Miyazawa’s April White House visit.

The conversation winds back in history, to World War II (everyone at this table agrees that Hirohito was a powerless pawn of the military and doesn’t deserve blame for the war) and to the emperor’s postwar declaration that he was no longer a god. When I ask how the Japanese public so readily accepted this about-face, some of the women explain that the emperor’s divinity was already being questioned by many in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

But others around the table contend that the emperor’s announcement was viewed as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, an example of what the Japanese people should be willing to give up for the good of the nation. “By saying he was a human being, he took the risk of being killed by MacArthur or others,” Tomoko says. “He set the first example of self-sacrifice.”

In the end, though, we return to 1993 and the upcoming wedding. What kind of role model, I ask, will Masako Owada provide for young Japanese women?

“Well, the handbag she wore has been more popular lately,” Yoko says sarcastically as everyone laughs and offers up their own examples of the Masako-craze that has infected their country.

Shigeko: “I feel that Masako didn’t throw her career away, she just changed jobs. But young Japanese girls will see this as a decision to drop their careers and get married.”

Michiko, turning to Shigeko: “Don’t you think it’s important to get married and have children? That’s a career, too.”

Tomoko: “Owada is intelligent, and I don’t think there are too many men who could marry her, who could be at her level.”

Yoko: “In the engagement press conference, I’ve never seen a woman speak out so much. A Japanese woman should not be stepping out like that. Equal is OK but she should never step in front of him. Hillary is a little too much, don’t you think?”

My pleasant surprise at this group’s candor and outspokenness is tempered the following day when I’m informed that several of the women were horrified to hear criticism of the imperial family. They had spoken about it and decided that I should only use their first names.

“After all,” one woman nervously explained on behalf of the group, “this is Japan.”

AS THE CLOCK TICKED TOWARD midnight one evening in 1990, Toru Yuge, president of Yokohama’s Ferris University, climbed a ladder in his library-study to search for a book. As he stepped upward, the light threw his shadow across a window on the other side of the room. It was precisely the sign that the right-wing nationalists outside were waiting for. As Yuge reached for a book, shots were fired into the room. One of the bullets missed him by a foot.

Yuge is one of several public figures whose lives have been endangered because they dared to criticize imperial ways. The chill that hovers over open debate about the imperial family because of fear of reprisal from these self-proclaimed protectors of the crown has earned a sobriquet: The Chrysanthemum Taboo. The right-winger’s bullets missed Yuge, but others have not been so fortunate. In 1990, a militant shot Nagasaki’s mayor, Hitoshi Motoshima, after he publicly asserted that Hirohito shouldered some blame for World War II. The mayor survived the bullet, but has since maintained a lower profile.

Yuge’s particular sin was taking part in a petition drive by the Christian community to protest the use of taxpayers’ funds for the emperor’s Shinto rituals. The Japanese constitution stipulates the separation of church and state. But Japan’s officialdom, on this and other sensitive issues, is capable of tour de force rhetorical fox trots. Typically, defenders of this clear constitutional breach will explain it away by asserting that Shintoism is a secular part of Japanese folklore and tradition. One Imperial Household official has stated that Shintoism is not a religion; it is the body of customs maintained by the imperial family.

In fact, Shintoism is an animistic faith linking the people with their ancestors and some 8 million kami, or gods. It offers no stated dogma or set of commandments, and comfortably coexists with Japanese Buddhism. While funerals are typically Buddhist, most Japanese turn to Shintoism for life passages such as births, harvests and weddings. Shinto shrines are everywhere--from corporate offices to neighborhood corners. The emperor, as the foremost earthly link between the people and their gods, conducts several rituals a month on behalf of the Japanese people. But most are conducted quietly, out of public view at shrines on the imperial grounds.

The emperor is not now--and never was--believed to be an immortal, omniscient creator in the Western sense of the word. But it’s hard to support claims that Shintoism is not a religion. Just listen to Hideaki Kase, a devout Shintoist and author on the imperial family: “The English term ‘emperor’ is too broad. He is a priest-king, the highest ranking Shintoist priest, half-god, half-man.” Yes, Kase concedes, the emperor did declare himself no longer divine after the war, “but at American gunpoint. Suppose your God in heaven was declared no longer God. Tenno (roughly translated as “heavenly ruler”) is still sacred. He is a holy man, a shaman.”

As a strong nationalist and advocate for a return to the purest imperial traditions, Kase doesn’t reflect the view of most Japanese people. But clear evidence of the religious nature of Shinto rites can be found in the rituals themselves. Details of the daijosai ceremony that spiritually transforms a new emperor into a tribal sovereign are closely guarded imperial secrets handed down orally through the generations. But a commonly held view among scholars who have pieced together many of the details paints this scenario: In one portion of the daijosai ceremony, the ruler enters into the womb of the Sun Goddess and returns as fully vested emperor. In a second phase, he spends the night with Amaterasu after a private banquet. “Some people say he mocks the sexual act, but it’s nothing we would consider obscene,” Kase explains.

The daijosai was the most prominent of the state-supported rituals that university president Yuge had in mind when he and other leaders of the 1 million Christians in Japan made their protest. “I have nothing against the enthronement of the new emperor,” the soft-spoken former history professor explains during an interview in his office.

“I was against using tax money on the ceremony, which is conducted by Shinto priests. The Christian community accepts the emperor as a symbol, but there’s no need to go further than that.”

While the protest pushed Yuge into the public spotlight, the historian has waged the same campaign in a quieter way for years. As Hirohito lay dying in late 1988, much of Japan observed a period of jishuku , or self-restraint, by canceling weddings and other festivities. At his passing, the press used words for his death that could only be applied to one figure on earth, the emperor. But Yuge issued a statement to his students saying this death should be treated like any other human death. In his statement, he added that Showa’s passing was an ideal time to reflect on the responsibility of Japan and the emperor in World War II.

World War II--and the emperor’s role in it--is not a subject that Japanese students have much opportunity to objectively explore. As a textbook author himself, Yuge has seen firsthand the limitations of the public education system. “There’s always pressure from the Ministry of Education when it comes to the last war,” he says. “They claim they worry about youth losing faith in the country. For example, there’s hardly any mention of Pearl Harbor.”

At the scholarly level, ideological camps prevent much serious research into the emperor’s role. Leftists sweepingly condemn the imperial system for harboring the seeds of fascism. Meanwhile, nationalists grasp for any shred of evidence--from poems to vaguely worded letters--in their quest to prove that Hirohito was a peace-loving man. There has been renewed interest in the war since Hirohito’s death, but scholarly research is made more difficult by the Imperial Household Agency’s tight lock on key documents.

Yuge doesn’t want his own students to forget the lessons of Japan’s history, particularly the way in which emperor worship helped lead to the dangerous brand of nationalism infecting Japan just half a century ago, when soldiers and civilians would unquestioningly kill themselves and others on behalf of their ruler. Every semester Yuge teaches a class called “The Idea of Peace,” in which he argues that international organizations such as the United Nations should promote the rights of people, not the rights of states. “Nationalism, especially in Japan,” he says, “is not a good thing. It does not look back on the past and reflect on it. Nationalism is dangerous in that it tries to defend the interests of the nation rather than the civil or human rights of the people.”

HIROHITO WAS A RECLUSIVE figure who began his life as a sacrosanct constitutional monarch and ended it at age 87 as merely a “symbol of the unity of the Japanese people"--a constitutional change forced on postwar Japan by the United States. With his death, an aura of remote charisma has been lifted from the Chrysanthemum Throne. In contrast to the isolated life of his father, Emperor Akihito grew up with friends and classmates, was tutored by an American Quaker, married a commoner (though the daughter of a rich industrialist) and raised his own children under the same roof.

In prewar days, when Emperor Hirohito passed through town, his subjects were obligated to avert their eyes and draw down their shades. The first time they ever heard his voice was on the radio, on Aug. 15, 1945, when it was broadcast across scratchy airwaves to announce Japan’s surrender. Immediately after the war, he made public visits to wartime victims and later appeared occasionally at public events, but he was never truly an accessible figure.

Emperor Akihito and his family are more visible figures. This emperor shakes hands with his subjects and regularly calls in experts from various fields for informal visits. And he talks, if ever so cautiously, about the scars of World War II. Those with a relationship with Akihito are convinced of his pacifism, a view that is reinforced by such events as the emperor’s visit to Nagasaki Mayor Motoshima, his father’s critic, after the assassination attempt.

That change is encouraging to some, disheartening to others--depending on their political station. In Yuge’s mind, the transformation of the emperor into a more ordinary person, whose popularity can be equated with that of a TV celebrity, is a good thing.

But the keepers of tradition are disturbed. “Sacred holy people should not be seen too much in public,” says Kase, an advocate of moving the family back to Kyoto. “This is the first emperor to shake hands with his subjects. I criticized that. I criticized his holding the empress’s hand in public. The most important thing is to preserve old traditions.” Critics such as Kase also believe that World War II is a “political” topic best left untouched by the emperor.

Even in this global economy, Japan clings to some of its ancient ways. Instead of adopting a Western-style calendar, the country counts its years on a cycle that begins and ends with the reign of the current emperor, a system called gengo . (This year, for example, is Heisei 5, or the fifth year of the current emperor’s reign, named for “achieving peace.”) Public-school children sing a national anthem that extols the emperor. Wednesday’s wedding ceremony has been declared a national holiday, the fourth time since the war that an imperial ritual has been deemed important enough to close down the economy. When Akihito assumed the throne, his birthday became a national holiday. And the holiday that had marked his father’s birthday was renamed “Greenery Day” and retained as an official holiday. The 1959 wedding of Akihito and Michiko also was celebrated as a holiday.

It would take gale-force winds of change to knock over the staid traditions of the imperial court. So far, what blows around the Chrysanthemum Throne is no more than a soft spring breeze. The new crown princess, with all her education and ambition, is held out as a model for young girls. But in a culture that has traditionally valued the housewife over the careerist, her move can more easily be read as womanly self-sacrifice.

Owada’s engagement touched off an internal debate among the country’s few feminists. While many applauded the crown prince for being so forward looking, some were quick to condemn Owada for sending the wrong signal to young girls by giving up her career. Others criticized her for becoming part of a historically sexist institution, where women must walk behind their men and can never become ruler.

To Japan’s growing international set, Owada’s engagement carries a different cultural promise: She is seen as a signal of Japan’s renewed desire to open up to the world, to move further in sync with the ways of an international economy. In that, however, she can be no more than a symbol, a patriotic woman whose life will be tightly controlled, a princess-diplomat working inside an entrenched establishment that seems incapable of seriously re-examining its style of business with other nations.

But this was Owada’s choice. On Wednesday, she will don her junihitoe , a $30,000, multi-layer kimono so heavy she will hardly be able to move. She will walk inside a shrine on the palace grounds, smile demurely and bow deeply. Then she and her crown prince will take their vows, sip the sacred rice wine and make their offerings to the gods. And the two promising young monarchs will carry the torch of Japan’s cultural uniqueness into the world, steeped in the ways of a fast-paced global society but bound to uphold centuries of tradition.