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Making his first stop in a low-key, two-week tour of the United States, the emperor of Japan arrived here Friday, chatted with schoolchildren at the airport, lunched with former President Jimmy Carter and breezed around town in a politically correct Cadillac limousine.

The visit by Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, is intended to project an image of friendly relations at a time of heightened tensions between Japan and the United States over trade issues and over how to respond to North Korea's defiance of nuclear inspections.But the emperor's somewhat unimperial mixing with commoners and extending of his hand to total strangers backfired a bit Friday afternoon. During a reception at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Rev. Hosea Williams, the veteran civil rights campaigner, told Akihito that he found "Japanese people to be very disrespectful of black Amer-i-cans."

"We spend $13 billion a year on Japanese products," Williams said loudly, clinging to the emperor's hand. "And not a single black American has a Japanese franchise. Not one."

The challenge was translated into the highly formal Japanese used in the royal household. The emperor and empress held their perfect smiles. Then the emperor nodded and responded that he was very pleased indeed to meet the reverend. No more was said, and the party moved on, escorted by Coretta Scott King.

Mild as the challenge was by some standards, that sort of direct confrontation is what the royal household has risked by jetting the emperor to Atlanta, and to cities including Charleston, S.C.; Charlottesville, Va.; New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles in addition to a state dinner with President Clinton in Washington.

The itinerary was selected to give the imperial couple a broad look at America. But an early move to have the emperor visit Pearl Harbor when he stops in Hawaii was abruptly canceled when the Japanese government, which controls the imperial family's schedule, said it could court trouble with the Japanese right wing.

Other war wounds were on display Friday. As the imperial motorcade pulled up at the Occidental Hotel, a group of about 20 Chinese protesters quietly held up signs urging the emperor to "Say Sorry" and not to forget the infamous Rape of Nanjing.

In May, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano was forced to resign after he described the World War II Japanese massacre in the Chinese city as "a fabrication." The protesters were kept from the emperor's view by a black cloth panel set up outside the hotel's curved drive.

Akihito's instinctive grace and extraordinary composure promise to showcase not his country's competitive zeal but its most genial and cultured face.

But across the Pacific, the impressions left by the sojourn may have a sting of their own. For 14 centuries, Japanese citizens were taught that the emperor was a direct descendant of the sun goddess. And though Akihito's father, Hirohito, renounced notions of divinity, it is still easy to shock Japan with even the slightest hint of disrespect for the world's oldest, unbroken imperial line.