The outpouring of emotion that has accompanied the prolonged illness of Japanese Emperor Hirohito has prompted concerns at home and abroad that the nation may be headed for a revival of pre-World War II-style right-wing nationalism. Spokesmen of both the hard-line right and left have conjured up the image of a return to a prewar system in which the Emperor would be the legal ruler of Japan and a symbol of an aggressive Japan possessing both military and economic power. Right-wing commentators have trumpeted the turnout of hundreds of thousands of well-wishing Japanese to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as evidence of an upsurge in Emperor worship.
But experienced Japanese political analysts consider such concerns overwrought. The stability-oriented middle class shows little evidence of strong political leanings to either extreme, such observers say, and no yearnings for the prewar past.
Critics from the left have charged the government and the media with promoting an overly reverential attitude toward the Tenno, as the Japanese call the Emperor. ``The enforcement of sympathy for the Tenno and ... condolence runs counter to the principle that sovereign power resides with the people,'' wrote the Japanese Communist Party daily recently.
For the left, the Emperor is a controversial figure, held responsible by some for Japan's wartime acts. The 62-year reign of Emperor Hirohito, the longest in Japan's history, covers a turbulent period including the rise of 1930s militarism, World War II, the post-war occupation by the United States, and the country's spectacular economic expansion. The right would like to restore the Emperor to a more central role and have Japan shed the restrictions on its national power imposed after the war.
In recent days the Japanese government has clearly signaled a desire to calm fears of resurgent right-wing nationalism. The government has called for a lifting of the funereal air that prevailed in the first days after the Emperor fell ill, reflected in the cancellation of most public events and celebrations. Crown Prince Akihito has communicated his father's desire that such restraint end. There has been a noticeable change in atmosphere, a return to more normal day-to-day life.
Many analysts argue that the reactions of the Japanese people are being misinterpreted. ``It looks like rising nationalism but if you look more deeply, it is more complex,'' says Kiyofuku Chuma, a political commentator for the liberal daily Asahi Shimbun. The crowds of well-wishers gathering at the palace, Mr. Chuma argues, are attracted more by media attention than by a feeling of reverence.
Others say Japanese are simply showing feelings of sympathy for a man who is respected, and even beloved, for his gentle, paternal nature and his role in ending the war. ``This is a very natural expression of the Japanese people,'' historian Noboru Kojima says. ``There is no implied political or religious connotation.''
``There are those who favor direct rule by the Emperor,'' acknowledges editorial writer Kiyoshi Kubo, a longtime observer of the Imperial Household for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily. ``But such people are a small portion of the total population.''
Despite these assurances against an abrupt turnabout, many Japanese seriously worry about what the anticipated change in the Imperial era will mean for Japan. The succession to Crown Prince Akihito, who has already assumed the responsibilities of Emperor, is viewed by many as the first true test of how far Japan has gone since the war in becoming a truly ``democratic'' country.
The Emperor has been, by tradition, both a political symbol and a spiritual figure. According to court legends, the Emperor is a direct descendent of the sun goddess, the chief diety of the pantheistic religion of Shintoism. Hirohito renounced his divinity right after the end of the war; Akihito will be the first emperor to assume the throne without a sacred status.
The post-war constitution, rewritten under US direction, barred Japan's right to conduct a war of aggression and reduced the status of the Emperor from being head of state to that of ``a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.'' The Constitution also enforced separation of church and state.
Citizens groups, including constitutional scholars and lawyers, worry that the transition will provide a chance for conservative forces, including some in the government, to challenge the Constitution.
A statement issued by a group of 64 writers, artists, and intellectuals this week opposed plans to perform traditional Shinto rites associated with the Emperor's death and the enthronement of a new Emperor as a violation of the Constitution. These ceremonies have not been performed since the prewar period and there is no clear legal guide as to what should be carried out by the government.
Controversy focuses on two particular ceremonies. The succession of the new emperor takes place immediately through the handing down of three sacred objects - the jewel, mirror, and sword that by myth symbolize the legitimacy and authority of the Emperor. Approximately a year later, the formal enthronement is performed.
Right-wing commentators urge the full celebration of rites to ensure the spiritual legitimacy of the Imperial Household.
The rites will go on in some form but how they are presented to the public, and the government's direct role in them, may be the most important factor. Shunpei Ueyama, the director of the National Museum in Kyoto, sees no threat to democracy in such events. Nor do they auger re-deification. These rites, he says, are a part of Japan's long cultural tradition.
This contoversy is still largely among groups of advocates and in the journals of intellectuals. There is no evidence that the vast majority of Japanese are yet engaged in such debate.
Still, the coming months are likely to bring to the foreground important historical and philosophical issues which have been obscured by the ambiguities of Japan's post-war mix of tradition and modernity.
Kazuo Fukui, a 68-year-old widow, is typical of how Japanese view their Emperor. The Emperor, she says, is important to ``keep the unity of the country.'' He is a neutral figure, standing above the political fray. But she says she opposes any return to ``the way it was before.'' If rightists try to move Japan in that direction, she says forcefully, ``people of my age would rise up - I would rise up.''