THE ancient land of Japan, has passed, with deep sadness, into a new era. With the death of Emperor Hirohito, a crucial link to Japan's pre-war, feudal past has been lost. The 87-year-old monarch occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne longer than any of his predecessors.
In the unbroken line of the oldest surviving hereditary monarchy in the world, his 62-year reign was the longest. At the time Hirohito became the ``Tenno'' - the ``heavenly sovereign'' - he was revered as a god in the pantheon of Shinto, Japan's religion of ancestor and nature worship. Although Hirohito renounced his divinity at the end of World War II, he remained a distant and mystical figure.
Now, with the ascendance of his son, Akihito, to the throne, the Japanese imperial institution is moving in a new direction. Akihito, 55, is a man of modern Japan, who was educated and became an adult after the end of the war. He reflects, along with his son, now Crown Prince Hiro, the evolution of the imperial system into a European-style constitutional monarchy.
As is traditional, Emperor Akihito's reign has been given an era name - ``Heisei'' - meaning ``universal peace,'' a name which suggests Japan's new role as a global power. The more worldly and sophisticated monarch appropriately reflects the transformation of an insular nation which has become more attentive and more sensitive to the world around it.
The new Emperor is perhaps a transitional figure. The rituals of court life will not change. But he has already broken tradition in important ways. After the war, he was educated with other boys and was taught for four years by Elizabeth Gray Vining, his American Quaker tutor. In 1959, he married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Their storybook romance, which began on a tennis court, thrilled the Japanese, who lined Tokyo streets in the hundreds of thousands, as millions watched on television, to celebrate their marriage.
As Crown Prince, Akihito pushed out the tightly set boundaries of the monarchy. He and his wife traveled frequently and widely around the world. They socialized, including with foreigners, from the tennis court to the ballroom. They have complained that the Imperial Household Agency, which controls court life, is far too zealous in limiting their contacts with ordinary people.
Real change to a more European-style monarchy will probably come with their son, Crown Prince Hiro. He is the first such child to have been brought up in his parents' home (previous future emperors were removed and raised by court officials). Crown Prince Hiro has attended public schools and, unlike his father, has ridden trains and visited department stores. He studied medieval history at England's Oxford University.
But of all the changes brought by Emperor Hirohito's passing, none is more profound than the clear sense that it marks an emotional break between the pre- and post-war eras. The powerful feelings of most Japanese for their late gentle monarch are intimately tied to their memories of the disaster of World War II. His very presence had served to remind all Japanese of that sorrow.
The days since Hirohito's death have been dominated by reflections on Japan's history. The television networks have aired countless hours of rare, previously unseen documentary footage, taking Japanese through detailed examinations of the 62 years of the Emperor's reign.
Though his era was designated ``Showa'' - ``enlightened peace'' - Emperor Hirohito presided over the most turbulent times in the history of Japan. The late Emperor was enthroned in 1926, in the middle of a short-lived, chaotic period of parliamentary rule by political parties. He was used as a symbol by the ultranationalist militarists who took control in the 1930s and guided Japan into war with the Allies.
The Emperor's role in the war remains a source of controversy for Japanese and for foreigners. Some hold him responsible for the conflict, although most historians agree he was constitutionally limited to a role as only a titular leader. Others argue that the Emperor is guilty, at least, of not trying to stop the war.
But most Japanese remember Hirohito for ending the war more than for anything else. In August 1945, when the wartime regime was deadlocked over whether to surrender, the Emperor made a rare foray into politics and commanded his battered nation to give in. In the years that followed, Hirohito never failed to remind his fellow Japanese of the sadness of the war, a mistaken course.
The close of the war was a moment of crisis for the imperial institution, as some among the Western allies advocated abolishing it as part of Japan's democratization. Many Japanese, feeling demoralized and betrayed by their leaders, shared that view.
But General Douglas MacArthur and the United States occupation authorities decided instead to retain the Emperor for the sake of post-war stability. The diminutive monarch became a symbol of the new democracy, transformed in the US-drafted revision of the constitution, into a ``symbol of the state.'' The people were now sovereign; state-sponsored Shintoism was banned, and the aristocracy - except of the immediate Imperial family - was stripped of its titles.
Emperor Hirohito's comforting paternal image provided an important bridge of continuity from war-time days, through an unprecedented foreign occupation, into Japan's remarkable postwar recovery and transformation into a great industrial power.
Slowly, the imperial institution emerged from its sanctified isolation. With the end of the war, the Emperor took on a ``human'' face. 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 was marine biology.
Despite this, the Emperor did not relinquish his original identity. Historically he has been a spiritual figure rather than a political figure. Even after becoming a constitutional monarch, Hirohito performed the stylized rituals of Shintoism, dressed in the garb of the nation's highest ranking priest. His life was tightly controlled by the Imperial Household Agency.
Hirohito was a beloved but distant figure. The younger generation, who lack the emotional links to the war, routinely express a benign lack of interest in the Emperor. Some Japanese worry that the succession of Emperor Akihito will greatly diminish the value of the imperial institution. But if anything, the evolution of the imperial system expresses that remarkable Japanese combination of dramatic change and unaltered transcendent values.