There is nothing simple about sending the emperor of Japan on a two-week tour, especially when the destination is America.
So much can go wrong - just ask the bureaucrats who thought it would be a nice touch to send the royal couple to Pearl Harbor until someone thought better of it - and there are so many uncomfortable issues to be neatly sidestepped, like a $60 billion trade surplus.So it is no wonder that after five decades of intensive training and five years on the job as symbol of the state, Emperor Akihito, 60, is the master of innocuous conversation. But that makes it all the more remarkable that the middle-aged couple who arrived in the United States last Friday have managed to breathe a bit of new life into a 1,600-year-old monarchy that, as Emperor Hirohito might have put it, was not necessarily developing to Japan's advantage.
Japan's leaders have never failed to mold the emperor to fit the current needs of the state - Hirohito was transformed from a uniformed military leader on a white horse to a quiet biologist - and the 11-city U.S. tour gives them a chance to do it anew.
And while the government protests that everything the emperor does is apolitical, no one denies that the mission to America is part of a grander scheme to portray Japan as something more than a source of Walkmans and economic heartache.
It doesn't hurt that this is the first royal couple in two millennia who might actually enjoy a tour of Monticello, a weekend in the Rocky Mountains, or a few innings at the Cardinals-Pirates game in St. Louis. All three are on the whirlwind schedule.
The image-makers have been so busy that suddenly imperial candor and a public sharing of pain - within carefully defined limits, of course - are suddenly permissible. To the astonishment of the Japanese press, Empress Michiko, who is 59, did the unthinkable last week: she talked about the mysterious illness, presumed to be some kind of nervous breakdown, that left her unable to speak last fall.
"The worry and sadness of having lost my speech grew bigger and bigger each day," she said at a news conference, speaking in a weak but clearly audible voice. Though she made no direct reference to a spate of critical magazine articles about her that many believe triggered her illness, she offered this tidbit of introspection: "My heart, weary and sad at the time I was taken ill, had become hard and fragile, for which I now blame myself."
By British tabloid standards, this may hardly seem like hot stuff, but it has its appeal in Japan. Michiko is the subject of considerable sympathy, and her critics have been stunned into silence. Instead, the weekly gossip magazines are filled with speculation over when Crown Princess Masako, a graduate of Harvard and then a diplomat, will provide the country with a future emperor. (Twice the press has declared her pregnant, so far incorrectly.)
But new and youthful as the imagery may be, Akihito is still
dogged by the war that was launched in his father's name. He has spent much of the past five years on an "apology tour" of the region, including the first visit of a Japanese monarch to China. He has also swung down through Southeast Asia.
"These were training missions," a Japanese diplomat joked the other day. "America's the big leagues."
Since nothing is done lightly in the palace, the emperor has spent weeks boning up on contemporary America. There have been briefings on social issues, delving into everything from health care to gun control. There was lunch with former Vice President Walter Mondale, now the American ambas-sa-dor here. Japanese business executives were called in to talk trade - within limits. One of Japan's most prominent executives confessed the other night that if the discussion ever ventured into something mildly controversial "his majesty skillfully moved on to another topic."
A small group of American reporters was even invited for a no-quotations-please audience over coffee at which the emperor and empress chatted about their lives and inquired about the United States while legions of nervous aides circled.
It is within the bounds of the ground rules to say that the emperor expressed his understanding that two countries as big as America and Japan will go through a lot of ups and downs; he is looking forward to seeing if squirrels still populate the parks of Washington, and he was amazed, during a trip through the Rocky Mountains years ago, that his limousine drove for hours without passing more than a handful of people. Try that in Japan, he said.
Anything beyond such chitchat, though, is left to the hands of the professionals in the Foreign Ministry, who script every word and calibrate every expression of regret. They were the ones, it turned out, who created a miniature crisis here before the emperor was even packed.
It arose when someone decided to send the emperor to Honolulu to meet Japanese-Americans. How could he go to Honolulu without stopping off at the memorial over the sunken USS Arizona?
There was anguish and hand-wringing and consultations and finally a decision that the visit would simply raise anew all the old questions about war responsibility.
After fumbling for official explanations, a few officials explained that if the emperor visited Pearl Harbor this year, the Japanese right wing would bring enormous pressure on the government to send him next year, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, to Yaskuni Shrine, where the Japanese heroes of the war are enshrined. And that would not do.
If the emperor himself has thoughts on this he is, as always, keeping his own counsel. "In World War II, many lives were lost, many people were wounded, and many people suffered," he wrote recently, neatly ducking a written question about whether Japan should keep apologizing for events that happened half a century ago. "My heart grieves deeply because of this."