THE Japanese government has begun preparations for the funeral of Emperor Hirohito, who died early Saturday morning. The ceremony will not only mark the death of the last great leader of the World War II era, but will also highlight Japan's reemergence as a world power. The rituals, to be held on Feb. 24, will attract world leaders, possibly including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, United States President-elect George Bush, and South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, as well as the cream of European royalty.
Interest is focusing on the possibility of Mr. Gorbachev's attendance, which would be the first visit by a Soviet leader to Japan, and of the funeral becoming a platform for great power summitry. Japanese officials say they are still waiting to hear from foreign governments, but Foreign Ministry sources rate the possibility of Gorbachev and Mr. Bush coming as ``better than 60 percent.''
``The Japanese people will be very happy if some high-ranking representatives are sent from many countries,'' a Foreign Ministry official told reporters yesterday.
The funeral plans announced by the government yesterday have already raised controversial issues concerning the constitutional separation of church and state in Japan.
Following the precedent of the funeral of the Emperor Taisho, held in early 1927, both a state funeral and traditional religious rites of Japan's native Shinto beliefs will be performed. The state funeral, the Foreign Ministry official explained, will have ``no religious coloring,'' and the Shinto rites will be carried out as a ceremony of the Imperial Household.
But left-wing opposition parties, including the Socialists and Communists, are insisting that there be a far more strict separation of church and state. They worry that such linkage undermines the post-war Constitution, which ended state-sponsorship of Shintoism that had been associated with ultranationalist militarism.
For now such controversies are taking a back seat to a period of national mourning and sentimental reflection on the past. A steady flow of tens of thousands of Japanese to the Imperial Palace to sign official registers continued on Sunday despite a cold rain. There is little evidence, however, of the strong emotions displayed by some Japanese when the late Emperor fell ill last September.
The mood since Saturday has remained subdued but not sorrowful. No excessive curbing of daily life has been evident in the streets. Even the massive media coverage - all television networks suspended regular commercial broadcasting over the entire weekend in favor of specially prepared programs - has been relatively low-key.