JAPAN'S newly enthroned Emperor Akihito faces a challenging task: to serve as a symbol of unity for a people who chase the latest and trendiest, yet who remain intensely conservative at the core of their society. His role as the 125th emperor of an unbroken line stretching back into mythical times will be pivotal. Under him, the concept of emperorship as an organ of a constitutional democracy will either take root, or will retreat before forces seeking remythification and redeification. By its very nature, monarchy is a conservative institution. The enthronement, and even more, last week's Great Food Offering, emphasized ritual going back for more than a thousand years.
But Akihito is the first Japanese emperor to take office under a democratic constitution. His magnificent silk robes and his twenty-foot-high lacquer throne were in the style of the seventh century. But having ascended that throne, he unfurled a scroll and read out a pledge to ``respect the Japanese constitution and to carry out my duty as a symbol of state and of the unity of the Japanese people.'' Akihito's words reflected the advice of the government. But they also embody his personal choice to operate within, not beyond, the structure of constitutional democracy.
Akihito could have chosen to use the archaic court language of his predecessors. He could have chosen not to wave to his people in an open-car parade, the Empress Michiko at his side. But he spoke in everyday Japanese, and carried off the parade with aplomb and good humor.
The popular response was warm, but not all Japanese were pleased. I conversed recently with a prominent Tokyo politician who criticized the Emperor for his populist style - for his insistence on less obtrusive security, despite the repeated bomb attempts of leftist radicals, and for his greeting people as if they were his equals. Other small indications, when taken together, point to a style, an intent. ``It's all because of Michiko-san,'' said the politician referring to Akihito's commoner wife.
This politician, if asked, would deny any attempt to remythify or redeify emperorship. But for him, clearly, the Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun is a special being. I sensed in his remarks a strong desire to make the monarch a focus, a symbol, of a Japan that is unique and separate from the rest of the world. It's a line of thinking that is unsatisfied with the status of ``honorary Westerner'' assigned to the Japanese. Scientific and technical prowess are wonderful things, and so are the institutions of the modern democratic state. But the Japanese people need something something more than an impersonal constitution, the reasoning goes. They need a place of refuge for their hearts, a sense of identity featuring a priest-king, interceding on their behalf with gods many of them only half believe in.
Other Japanese - some in the media, some in the professions, some in the political opposition - vigorously oppose this viewpoint. They insist that emperorship has a role to play in a democratic society only if it is given a clearly defined constitutional position.
The controversy between these two viewpoints is sharp. While the position of those who seek to define the emperor's role in a democracy is clear, that of their opponents is not. It is a matter of nuances, of suggestions, appealing in one way or another to Japanese conservatism and tribal feeling.
Akihito's own clear choice of constitutional democracy could perhaps have been expected. He was profoundly influenced by Elizabeth Gray Vining, the American hired by Hirohito to be his son's tutor during the immediate postwar period. She taught him the importance of democratic values and of a sense of individual worth.
Today's Japan is far different from the land that, during the reign of Akihito's father, slid stage by stage from the promising beginnings of democracy into militarism and imperialist adventures. Democracy is much more solidly established, and its economic underpinnings are far more solid.
Nevertheless, in this transitional period, when irrational, mystical elements still cling to the concept of emperorship in Japan, there is always the danger that the aura will outshine reason. That is why Akihito's own role is so critical. That is what makes his own choice so important.