A MONTH after his accession to the throne, Emperor Akihito is making plans to visit a few Asian nations, helping Japan to define a future for itself in a region that it ruled half a century ago. The planned trips for 1991, most likely to South Korea and at least one Southeast Asian nation, would be the first time that a modern Japanese emperor has visited another Asian country, marking a symbolic breakthrough in Japan's relations with its neighbors.
The previous emperor, Hirohito, whose role in World War II and Japan's conquest of Asia has been a source of lingering resentment, was able to visit only Europe and the United States. He died in early 1989 after a 64-year reign. In 1986, when he was crown prince, Akihito had planned to visit South Korea, but the trip was canceled.
``I hope to perform the duties of the emperor in a manner appropriate to the present age, as symbol of the state and of the unity of the people provided for in the Constitution,'' he told Japanese journalists in a rare interview Dec. 23.
Akihito said he would like to promote understanding between Japan and other nations. When asked how, he stated: ``I believe that hereafter, all the countries in the world should work, as members of the international community, to build a better world to live in for the sake of the well-being of mankind, through person-to-person exchange, as well as country-to-country contact.'' Foreign journalists were excluded from the press conference.
During his November accession ceremonies, Akihito performed controversial rites, such as communing with the Japanese sun-goddess and ascending to a throne above the people. In the past, such rites were used by the military to instill emperor worship among the Japanese and many overseas subjects. Asked if a repetition of these rites violated a postwar constitutional principle that sovereignty resides with the people, Akihito said such rites are ceremonial and have ``historically existed since ancient times.''
But when asked about another symbol of wartime imperial rule - the cheer of banzai that was yelled by Japanese officials after the accession in November - the emperor revealed his intention to break from the past. ``Our generation has lived long enough in an age that has nothing to do with such a thing.''
Relying on overseas trips by Akihito to improve ties with other countries will be difficult, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe, because such visits might violate a constitutional prohibition against the emperor playing a political role. But he said the government's No. 1 goal for 1991 is to improve relations with Asia.
A trip by the emperor to South Korea, which may come as early as February, depends on the success or failure of a visit to Seoul planned for Jan. 9 by Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. An unresolved issue between Japan and its former colony is finding a substitute for the present fingerprint identification of Korean residents in Japan. Both Akihito and his father have made limited apologies for Japan's ruthless 1910-45 rule of Korea, where bitter feelings remain toward Japan.
Another strong candidate for a visit by the emperor is Thailand, which has benefited greatly in recent years from Japanese investment. Although more an ally than a subject during the war, Thailand today plays a central role in helping Japan's regional image. Thailand itself has a constitutional monarchy.
IN 1991, Asia will overtake the US as Japan's biggest export market, according to the Japan Foreign Trade Council, a group of major trading firms.
``Now we have become a large and important economic power, we should try to avoid any stance that would lead people to think we are the same as we were before the war,'' said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama on a recent trip to Southeast Asia.
Following the recent failure of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Malaysia proposed that Asian nations formed a regional trade bloc, like the European Community. Japan, which enjoys considerable trade and investment in Asia, quickly rejected the idea, preferring to balance its ties between the West and Asia.
Recent proposals for a regional security arrangement for Asia like that in Europe also draw a cool response from Japan, since the area is home to cold war disputes and territorial cross-claims, such as in Korea and Cambodia.
``In Europe, things are much simpler,'' says Mr. Watanabe. ``Countries faced the same challenges and were able to overcome them. Perestroika [Soviet restructuring] led to an overall mood for democracy and the market system.'' The disputes in Asia are ``varied in nature and have to be tackled one by one. Then we can aim for overall security in Asia,'' he added.
Asian fear of a potential revival of Japanese militarism was addressed last week by Japan, when it decided to cut the growth rate of its defense spending almost in half for the next five years to 3 percent a year. The maximum number of ground troops will be reduced from 180,000 to 153,000 - the present number.
Concerns were raised by several Asian nations after Japan proposed sending military personnel to help the anti-Iraq efforts in the Gulf. The proposal was not approved by parliament.
Also in 1991, the remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is expected to strain US-Japanese ties. Some Japanese officials talk of making a conciliatory gesture by having the prime minister meet President Bush in the Pacific.