THE marriage of Crown Prince Naruhito to Masako Owada in Tokyo on Wednesday had pretty much the whole country glued to their television sets. The ceremony and the style of the new Crown Princess's gorgeous billowing robes were ancient.
But the coming together of a young couple educated at Harvard and Oxford, and equally at home in Tokyo or New York, symbolized the kind of country Japan wants to be - a respected member of the global community, blending ancient roots with a mind-set open and welcoming to the whole world.
Such a Japan is still part promise, part reality. The reality is deeper and more substantial than some Westerners, dismayed by Japan's "difference," may think. But even the more sanguine believer in these islanders' abilities to adapt to new circumstances and to absorb new influences would have to admit this: The path from ethnic and cultural singularity to an easy acceptance of diversity within and an openness to the world without is never smooth.
With nations, as with individuals, there are certain moments that are remembered as milestones - a time to sit back and think about where one has been and where one is headed - to abandon old grooves and reach out in new directions. Japan faces such a moment.
Nearly half-a-century ago, defeat in World War II caused Japan to take a sharp change in direction. Militarism was abandoned and democracy adopted with enthusiasm.
The early postwar world was neither a stable nor a peaceful place, but American generosity and military protection enabled the Japanese to concentrate single-mindedly on economic recovery and expansion.
Partly by instinct, partly by trial and error, the Japanese evolved an economic system based on new elements and old - democracy, individual values, the spirit of scientific inquiry, changing but not fully transforming habits based on the feudal past and on a shared sense of ethnic and social homogeneity. The Japanese system emphasized production rather than consumerism, exports rather than imports, and had a consistent if not explicitly articulated goal: to catch up with America.
Today, the Japanese have caught up, with a vengeance. Japan is the first country in history to have achieved great-power status without significant military might.
In fact it has a constitution that explicitly forbids Japan from going to war and government policies that reject nuclear weapons and international arms trafficking
Now these islanders find themselves deluged from every side with demands to behave as a responsible major power. They may not be perceived, yet, as a military menace. But in many countries, and especially in the United States, they are regarded as an economic juggernaut, affecting the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people who may never have visited Japan and who still have trouble differentiating the country from China.
Equally important is the demand from within the country for change. The generation that saved and worked so hard to create Japan's postwar miracle is reaching retirement age, and their goals are changing. While saving somewhat for their future, they want to enjoy now.
As consumerism grows, the ticket of explicit and implicit rules and regulations that characterizes the relationship between bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians - which outsiders describe as invisible trade barriers - is increasingly viewed even in Japan as a hindrance, not a help, to further growth.
"Suppose we make millions more cars," says one of Japan's leading reformist politicians. "Where are we going to sell them? We have to develop products with high added value, products no one else has. The creativity and originality we need cannot be born in the kind of rigidly regulated system we have today."
It's a cold, hard world the Japanese face. If the US, under the Clinton administration, has abandoned the big brotherism of the early postwar years, it has also abandoned the generosity of those years, economist Toyoo Gyoten points out in a recent essay.
Japan, says Gyoten, must give up not only the unspoken deference that has characterized its relationship with Washington so far, but also the amae - a word that means the attitude of a small child who knows he can always presume on the love of his parent even though he may not deserve it.
Behind the splendor of this week's wedding looms a burden Japan can no longer shirk. In a world precariously freed from the cold war, Japan cannot merely respond to pressures coming from the US or anywhere else. It has to define its own national interests within the larger context of a world that needs to be one. It has to help shape that world by initiatives coming not only from Washington or Paris, but from Tokyo.
For a nation so long accustomed to thinking of itself as small and resource-poor, it's a huge milestone.