LAKE KAWAGUCHI, JAPAN — Snow-crested Mount. Fuji rises over this mountain lake into the crisp blue sky of early spring.
Outside a lakeside concert hall, a hundred or so people wait behind police cordons. The Emperor and Empress of Japan alight from their limousines, smile at the small crowd, and exchange a few words with the children in the front row. For white-haired Ukiko Nakamura, watching the imperial couple from a few yards away, this event is no celebrity stakeout.
Although she is well aware that Japan's emperor is officially no longer a divine being, Mrs. Nakamura says that witnessing Emperor Akihito's "grandeur" leaves her filled with gratitude. "I'm so glad I've lived long enough to see this," she says, her sincerity underscored by a quivering chin and silent tears.
But compared with his aloof forebears, Akihito is the most down-to-earth monarch in Japanese imperial history. He is slowly fulfilling the promise he made when he became emperor a decade ago - to be "always close to the people."
Such closeness can exact a cost. When Empress Michiko raised her arms to join a stadium audience in a "wave" last year, to take one example, conservatives wondered whether proximity to the people would undermine imperial dignity.
The problem is that Nakamura's sort of adoration is fading with her generation.
For Akihito and his staff, the enemy is apathy - the third of the population who say they "feel nothing" for the emperor. The imperial quandary is how to generate a stately popularity without squandering the aura and mystery cast by 2,000 years of tradition.
This effort is akin to Japan's progression as a nation: Many people want closer integration with the rest of the world even as others worry about sacrificing Japanese identity and uniqueness. In this regard, at least, Akihito is what Japan's Constitution says he should be: the symbol of the state.
Makoto Watanabe, the grand chamberlain of the Imperial Household and perhaps the emperor's closest adviser, says that Akihito strives to portray "a typically good Japanese," someone who is diligent, honest, mindful of others, and who lives life simply. His attempts to be close to the people often come down to minute details, such as his and the empress's decision to keep the limousine windows down whenever there are onlookers. History makes clear the gravity of such a small gesture: Earlier this century, citizens were kept at least 100 yards from the imperial conveyance; those who could see it had to bow their heads.
Closeness also means easing up slightly on the imperial reserve. When the emperor and empress visited survivors of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Akihito massaged a woman's shoulders - an action that his predecessors would never have contemplated.
Closeness means reaching out to the people of Okinawa, the island that the military used as a bulwark against Allied forces at the end of World War II, causing thousands upon thousands of civilian casualties.
Closeness means marrying a commoner, as both Akihito and his son Naruhito have done.
Walking the tightrope between maintaining dignity and burnishing their public image is "the paramount question for all the royalties in the world today," says Mr. Watanabe. "We have to consider almost on a case-by-case basis every action the emperor and empress take in that respect. We have to think of the element of dignity or - and this isn't exactly the right word - a certain degree of aloofness which something like the imperial family has to preserve."
Finding a balance
On the other hand, of course, too much aloofness means irrelevance. Despite Akihito's efforts, many Japanese remain unmoved by their monarchy.
According to surveys by the Kyodo News agency, the proportion of Japanese who say they "feel nothing" for the emperor has ranged from 24.6 percent in 1989 (just after his father died) to 37.4 percent in 1992 to 36.4 percent last year.
A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says there is merit in all this apathy: Perhaps the imperial family can survive because it is perceived as innocuous. The implication is that an emperor who sought a weightier role or who lived flamboyantly would cause such controversy that the government would dismantle the imperial institution.
That step, however, would provoke trouble. For all his blandness, Japan's emperor has supporters who are vocal, passionately loyal, and sometimes armed. At Lake Kawaguchi, most onlookers fall into three groups: older Japanese, schoolchildren bused in for the occasion, and tough-looking men who walk and talk like gangsters.
Yoshikazu Shimba and a dozen or so colleagues - many wearing loud suits, gold jewelry, and artful hairstyles - stand respectfully silent in the presence of the emperor. Representing a small, local organization whose name translates to Mountain Sorrow Federation, Mr. Shimba's associates encourage everyone in the audience to take and wave a small Japanese flag.
Shimba is what most Japanese would call a rightist - a nationalist who harks back to the Meiji era (see story at right), when the emperor was the sovereign power and the commander of the armed forces. Shimba describes the emperor as the sun of the Japanese solar system and says he should have a greater role in leading the nation.
Rightists criticize, protest against, and sometimes attack individuals and institutions they perceive as disrespectful of the emperor. They complain when the imperial family does things they find demeaning or unwarranted, such as driving automobiles themselves or keeping limousine windows open in inclement weather or even traveling abroad. These ardent conservatives are a tiny percentage of the population, but they make themselves impossible to ignore.
Author Naoki Inose argues that Akihito's late father - known in life as Hirohito and since his death as Showa, or "enlightened peace" - served a purpose: as a chief priest who helped people honor those who died in World War II. Now it's hard to know what the emperor means. To find out, Mr. Inose suggests that the family be moved to Kyoto, their home for most of history.
Since the middle of the last century, the family has occupied a vast wooded sanctuary in the middle of Tokyo. "The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent," wrote the late French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1970. "One of the two most powerful cities of modernity is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness, forcing the traffic to make a perpetual detour."
Inose argues that, if the site were truly vacant, Japan could begin to understand what is at the core of its society. "The only way we can rebuild," he says, referring to the need to correct the aimless malaise of contemporary Japan, "is to find something within, to analyze what our values are."
Traditionalists, of course, don't know what to make of such notions. Masao Suzuki, chairman of a venerable organization of imperial loyalists, says the purpose of the emperor is simply to pray. For Mr. Suzuki, who is old enough to be Inose's father, the emperor remains a sacred figure whose main duty is to perform Shinto rites that will help the nation prosper. He realizes that most Japanese no longer think this way, but "deep in the hearts of Japanese people, there are these souls that are sleeping," he says, souls unified with the emperor in Japaneseness.
Considering how deeply the issue of the emperor sometimes resonates, commentators decry the absence of more debate. Partly the rightists stifle open discussion, since saying something that angers them can invite a blade or a bullet. But a latent desire not to offend the imperial family also keeps people from speaking out, a sentiment that may be held over from days when doing so was a crime.
A good example is the fact that the imperial line is slowly running out of heirs. Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Masako, who wed in 1993, have no children so far, and other imperial family members of their generation have not produced a son. Succession laws say the throne must be passed to a male.
In the end it may be a non-issue. "There are still hopes that a son will be born," says a source close to the imperial family who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If the worst comes to pass, then we will have to do something about the law." Court watchers say that solution would likely be to reinstate the eligibility of some young males of imperial ancestry.
Still, says journalist Hiroshi Takahashi, succession "is an issue now and we ought to discuss it." The problem is that taking the issue out of the gossip magazines and into more formal settings like parliament might offend Naruhito and Masako.
Japan's painful history also stifles debate. In recent months the government has sought to declare Japan's de facto national anthem - a one-line hymn to the emperor - and the rising sun flag as official symbols of state. But both are closely associated with the militaristic rulers who led the country into World War II, and resistance remains high to formal endorsement.
In the meantime, Akihito and Michiko soldier on, trying to be "always close to the people."
For some of the actual people, however, the experience of imperial closeness is complex. In fulfillment of the worst fears of the emperor's staff, it seems to win hearts - and simultaneously dispel the "grandeur" that so touched Nakamura.
Yoshimi Imaizumi, a rare youthful face at an imperial appearance, says she doesn't think young people are so apathetic about the institution. Standing outside a train station in Otsuki, in central Japan, she details her brief encounter with the empress. When I said, "Michiko-sama" - a polite suffix for a person's name - "she looked at me," Ms. Imaizumi says excitedly. "She's someone who looks back, who talks."
Then she adds: "But if you ask me if we absolutely need this system, then I start to wonder. Because times have changed, I sometimes wonder if it's really necessary for the country."