AFTER a decade or more of absorbing Sony televisions, Yamaha motorcycles, karaoke singing bars, and billions of yen investments, Asia is getting its first look at the latest Japanese export: the emperor.Starting today, Emperor Akihito begins the first official trip of any Japanese monarch to other Asian nations. For 11 days, he will make a historic but largely symbolic visit to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The trip may mark the start of "imperial diplomacy" by Japan, as this new emperor will likely make many trips abroad. Reaction to the trip is expected to be a bench mark for how much Japan can expand its ties in Asia. Tokyo officials hope Akihito, unlike his father, can help bury the past of Japan's aggression in the region and open a new political role for itself. "We attach great importance to this visit in general, and these countries in particular," says Yoshio Karita, the vice grand master of the Imperial Household Agency. The only previous official overseas trips of any emperor were made by Hirohito, who died in 1989 after a six-decade reign. His visits to Europe and the United States in the 1970s helped to offset his image as a warmonger and to set a new course for Japan's ties with the West, Japanese officials say. But he never traveled around Asia because of his controversial role in Imperial Japan's occupation of most of its neighbors. In 1974, a visit to Southeast Asia by then-Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka touched off anti-Japanese demonstrations in Thailand and Indonesia. The main message of the trip by Hirohito's son is to impress the former victims of Japanese militarism that Japan has remained peaceful for 46 years and wants to move out of the shadow of World War II. "After the war, looking back upon the past, Japan has determined to live as a peaceful nation," said the emperor in a rare press meeting before his trip. "I would like to make efforts to convey the fact that the Japanese people love peace and have wishes to deepen friendship with people of each country," said Akihito, who visited Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia when he was crown prince. The new emperor has tried to be less regal than his father. His car now stops for stoplights when on personal trips. Last July, he knelt down to listen to victims of the Mount Unzen volcano. At his "ascension ceremony" last year, Akihito said he wanted an "imperial household suitable to the times." Officials expect no problems during the visit, partly because the three countries were not primary victims of Japanese aggression. In fact, Thailand collaborated with Japan during World War II, and retains a strong monarchy. "The tactic of the government is to take the course of least resistance," says Naoki Inose, a noted writer about the emperor. All three Southeast Asian nations have benefited heavily from either Japanese investment or aid. Asia has received about 14 percent of Japan's total overseas investment. Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir holds up Japan as an economic model. China and South Korea, both of which suffered the most from Japanese colonization, also have invited Akihito to visit. But Japanese officials are wary of resentments among people in those countries. "There are too many fresh, unforgettable memories among the people which would challenge the emperor," says Shumon Miura, director-general of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. China hopes a visit will take place next year, the 20th anniversary of normalization between the two nations. To pave the way for Japan's new acceptance in Asia, both Japanese leaders and the emperor have offered either regrets or apologies about Japan's past. Last May during a visit to Southeast Asia, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed "sincere contrition" for Japan's past deeds. He also said the Japanese need a "correct recognition of history" and promised efforts to improve history textbooks. Since then, the government has issued a new manual which advises history teachers "to tell the students that we caused many damages to China and other countries." But one press report in Tokyo said Akihito will offer no strong apology during his trip. "Asian countries don't want an apology. They want Japanese money," Mr. Inose says. Some observers say the emperor, who is designated as the "symbol" of Japan under its US-crafted Constitution, is taking on a political role with this trip. "He is not responsible for policy," says Miura, "but no one is 100 percent apolitical." Some Japanese businessmen, he adds, hope the trip will "further their advancement in Southeast Asia." By and large, the trip has drawn little interest among ordinary Japanese. "The emperor is raised to be passive and tolerant. The Japanese respect him for that role," says Inose. "So when they see him taking some action, such as this trip, they don't attach any significance to it."