TOKYO — AS a ``symbol'' of the nation, a role assigned to him by the Constitution, the new emperor of Japan is preparing for his formal enthronement this fall amid a national debate over his very nature. The debate centers on Emperor Akihito's use of $14.3 million in government money to arrange a secret and nocturnal religious rite that some scholars claim will place him briefly with the deities of Japan's ancient Shinto faith.
Both the enthronement and the religious ritual, planned for November with dozens of foreign dignitaries present, will come nearly two years after the passing of Akihito's controversial father, Hirohito, whose own succession ceremonies took place in 1928.
Critics charge that the rite bestows a heavenly status to the emperor as a ``living god,'' a centuries-old Shinto belief that was taught before before World War II and used to rally people behind the Imperial Army.
To prevent the emperor from being used again for military or political purposes, United States occupation officials gave him a constitutional status as a symbol of the state, ``deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.'' Shintoism itself, a nature-worshiping faith with its own priesthood (only one of many religions in Japan), was also severed from state control.
But such changes on paper have not completely altered long-held beliefs and traditions that surround the emperor. For many Japanese, the issue of whether to publicly fund or even hold the Shinto ritual, known as Daijosai, has evoked emotions as deep as those felt by many US citizens over the issue of whether their national symbol, the US flag, can be burned in protest.
This Daijosai, in which the emperor will offer specially grown rice to Shinto deities and his ancestors during the night of Nov. 22 inside an imperial shrine, will be the first held under the post-war Constitution.
A January poll of 3,000 Japanese by Mainichi newspaper showed 29 percent supported the government funding, while 16 percent said the affair should be privately held. Another 23 percent did not care.
Some nationalists and right-wing groups plan to use the event to attack the American-imposed Constitution and its limits on the emperor.
``For an emperor to establish his authority, he must go through Daijosai,'' says Shusuke Nomura, a prominent nationalist. The US-imposed Constitution, especially its restraint on the emperor and re- armament, is ``like a kimono that doesn't fit Japan.''
One leftist group, Middle Core Faction, promises to ``crush the coronation.'' Many scholars, mainly Christian, are challenging the legality of the rite as being in violation of the Constitution's separation of religion and state.
``Holding the Daijosai implies that the emperor's legitimacy derives from the mythical Japanese sun-goddess [called Amaterasu],'' says Kanichi Fukuda, president of Meiji Gakuin University. ``Some scholars say the emperor actually enters the womb of the sun-goddess.
``Why should we consecrate the emperor and make him more than a common human?'' he asks. To deify the emperor ``will inevitably invite the suspicions of those neighboring countries to which Japan, under the guise of imperial divine sovereignty, caused such tremendous suffering,'' according to an April statement issued by presidents of four Japanese universities.
One justification offered by the government to fund Daijosai is that the event is similar to an American President-elect placing his hand on a Bible for the inauguration.
``Daijosai is an important ritual and part of the long tradition of the Imperial Household,'' says Nobuo Ishihara, deputy chief Cabinet secretary. ``The government is not in any position to say whether the emperor becomes a deity.''
To defend itself against a possible court challenge, the government contends that Daijosai is a traditional part of the hereditary succession and enthronement of the emperor, which are provided for in the Constitution.
But says Professor Fukuda, ``The government has no legal basis for Daijosai, therefore it can only appeal to tradition.'' State funding of the rite might have been avoided by appealing for private money, some scholars suggest.
In 1947, during the US occupation, mention of the ritual was eliminated from the Imperial House Law, which governs the emperor's activities.
Nonetheless, the event is being revived, presumably at the emperor's approval, as a ``public'' event, although not with the same status as the enthronement itself, which takes place Nov. 12 as a ``state'' ceremony.
Debate over the Daijosai has been somewhat muted due to a fear of right-wing groups attacking those who openly question the emperor or the emperor system. Earlier this year, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot by a ultranationalist after the mayor criticized the wartime role of Hirohito.
Partly out of fear of reprisal and partly in deference to the emperor, almost all Japanese newspapers have not questioned the legality of Daijosai in their editorials, although outside writers have been invited to express opinions.
Certain unspoken taboos about speaking out against the emperor system will only become stronger as a result of the Daijosai being held, says Mr. Fukuda. ``And the government will feel easier about breaking the line between the state and Shintoism,'' he adds.
In the Japanese mind, however, the emperor is a ``priest-king,'' contends Kinko Sato, a lawyer who was selected as one of 15 people to help a special government committee decide on whether to fund the event.
``The Japanese believe the emperor is always praying for the peace and happiness of the people,'' she says, although Daijosai is more a ``folkloric practice'' than a ``faith-promoting act, going back to at least 701 AD.
The rite may have originated from an ancient Japanese rice harvest ritual and was probably suspended for many emperors during times when they were subjugated to the rule of warlords.
The event is not an absolute necessity for a modern emperor, says Ms. Sato, but with so much rapid social change in Japan, there is a need for a new emperor to establish a special bond with the Japanese people and ``give some substance to the symbol.
``A dove is a symbol of peace, but it doesn't have anything to do with peace. When we look at the emperor, we see Japan. What makes the emperor a symbol? It is up to the faith and conviction of the Japanese people to see him as a priest-king in a spiritual bonding.''