Tokyo — `MY mother doesn't say so, but I think she still thinks of him like a god. My father dislikes him. He thinks he was responsible for World War II. I don't think much about it. He is just a symbol.'' This comment from Yoko Hanazumi, a young Japanese woman, sums up the contradictory images Japanese people have of Emperor Hirohito, the man they call Tenno. The word literally means ``heavenly sovereign,'' a title first assumed by Japanese rulers in the 6th or 7th century. According to 8th-century Japanese court chronicles, the holder of this title is a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the chief divinity of Shinto, Japan's pantheistic religion of ancestor, hero, and nature worship.
Hirohito has sat on the ``Chrysanthemum Throne'' longer than any of his predecessors, and he is -- by legend -- No. 124 in the unbroken line of the oldest surviving hereditary monarchy in the world. Today the Emperor celebrates his 85th birthday and the 60th anniversary of the Showa (``enlightened peace'') era, as his reign was designated.
That reign, however, has spanned some of the most turbulent events in Japanese history. He ascended the throne in 1926, in the middle of a short-lived, chaotic experiment with parliamentary rule by political parties. He was used as a symbol by the ultranationalist militarists who took control in the 1930s, and he guided Japan into its disastrous war against the Allies.
In August 1945, when the wartime regime was deadlocked over whether to accept the Allies' demand for surrender, the Emperor made a rare foray into politics and commanded his battered nation to give in. His comforting paternal image provided an important bridge of continuity from wartime days, through an unprecedented foreign occupation, into Japan's remarkable postwar recovery and transformation into an industrial nation.
Today no institution more fully reflects Japan's often paradoxical combination of dramatic social change and unaltered transcendent values than does the imperial system. The monarchy's distinctly primitive, semimystical character has remained basically the same for some 1,600 years. But it has also evolved into a European-style constitutional monarchy.
The court chronicles date the origins of the imperial institution to 660 BC. But historians now describe the first 14 emperors as ``legendary'' and believe the institution began sometime in the late 4th or early 5th century BC. While the early emperors may have had some genuine political power, their main function was as chief Shinto priest.
The tenno was thought to have magical powers to propitiate the gods, and in the Japanese middle ages his spiritual authority was used to legitimize the rule of shifting alliances of noble families and military warlords known as shoguns (literally, ``barbarian conquering generals'').
Emperors lived in isolation in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, often ignored, sometimes destitute. Hirohito's grandfather escaped from that obscure existence when the Tokugawa shoguns, who had controlled Japan for 265 years, were overthrown. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 made the emperor a constitutional monarch, giving him for the first time political as well as spiritual authority. It did not, however, invest him with full power. The Meiji-style emperor instead became a symbol of the new central authority, backed up by the establishment of Shinto as the state religion. And he was installed in sanctified isolation from his subjects in a huge palace in central Tokyo.
In 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito became the first member of the imperial family ever to leave Japan's shores, touring Europe and witnessing the relatively earthly life of European monarchs. Almost 50 years later, in a rare interview, he still looked back on this trip as ``the most memorable event'' of his life.
``My life up until then was like a bird in a cage,'' he said. ``But I got the taste of freedom for the first time by going to a foreign country.''
The Emperor did not experience such ``freedom'' in his own country until the end of World War II, a moment of crisis for the imperial institution. Many Japanese, feeling demoralized and betrayed by their leaders, felt the Emperor should share responsibility for the war. Among Western allies, there was strong opinion in favor of abolishing the institution.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the United States occupation authorities decided instead that retaining the Emperor was essential to Japan's postwar stability. So the emperor became a symbol of the new ``democracy,'' and on New Year's Day 1946, Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity as ``mere legend and myth.'' The US-drafted Constitution of 1947 abolished the sovereignty of the imperial institution, state Shintoism was banned, and the aristocracy -- with the exception of the immediate imperial family -- was stripped of its titles.
The ``human'' Emperor was soon seen visiting coal mines and presiding over various official functions. Japanese citizens, who were previously forbidden to speak his name or look at his face, were introduced to a quiet family man whose greatest passion is marine biology. Within the modest 15-room Fukiage Palace near the sumptuous official palace is a two-story lab where he pursues his career as one of the world's leading authorities on hydrozoans (jellyfish and related creatures).
Despite this aura of modernity, the Emperor has not relinquished his primitive origins. At least 20 times a year, he dons the traditional costume of the nation's highest-ranking Shinto priest and performs the stylized rituals of ancient Japanese civilization. Every year, the Japanese celebrate Founder's Day, which marks the mythical beginnings of imperial rule. The Japanese calendar, recently reaffirmed by law, counts the years according to imperial reign, this being the 60th year of Showa.
The Emperor's life is still tightly controlled by Japan's Imperial Household Agency. The bespectacled monarch remains a relatively distant figure, appearing in public only under carefully designed ceremonial circumstances.
The postwar generation of young Japanese, lacking the emotional links of their parents, routinely express benign lack of interest in the Emperor.
The future of the imperial institution lies with the next generation of the imperial family. Those who favor a full ``humanization'' of the institution, modeled on the British monarchy, look with expectation toward the succession to Crown Prince Akihito and his son, Prince Hiro. Rightists who advocate a return to emperor-worship worry that the two men are too ``Western.''
Prince Akihito, now 52 years old, has broken tradition in ways his father could not have imagined. In 1959, he married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, the attractive daughter of a wealthy businessman. Their romance reportedly began at a tennis game, and their life is the subject of constant attention in popular magazines.
The Crown Prince and his wife have traveled frequently and widely around the world. They are often called on to represent the monarchy at events around Japan. Still, they have been heard to complain that the Imperial Household Agency and the police are far too zealous in limiting their contacts with ordinary people.
Real change may come with their eldest son and heir apparent to the throne, Hiro. He is the first such child to have been brought up in his parents' home (previous future emperors were raised from infancy by specially appointed court officials). He attended public schools and, unlike his father, rode trains, visited department stores, went shopping. This year he returned from two years at Oxford, where he studied medieval history.
For young Japanese, ``Hiro is more like the English monarchy, more like Prince Charles,'' says Yoko Hanazumi.
Indeed, when he returned from England, Prince Hiro told reporters that he thought the imperial family should be as free to move about in society as European royalty is. The Japanese will witness that monarchical style themselves, when the Prince and Princess of Wales visit Japan next month. The visit has been preceded by a wave of media buildup, particularly aimed at Japanese youth. Japanese girls, who now intensely follow the search for a bride for Prince Hiro, are expected to greet the visiting British royals enthusiastically.
Some Japanese worry that, when Emperor Hirohito passes from the scene, the value of the institution will be greatly diminished. But if anything, the Chrysanthemum Throne has shown a remarkable capacity for survival.