EMPEROR Akihito and Empress Michiko are demonstrating that royalty still matters in this age of cyberspace and the common man.
While the Japanese government lurches from crisis to crisis and American trade negotiators bite their fingernails over the snail's pace of talks to diminish Japan's huge trade surplus, the imperial couple move serenely through an 11-city, 16-day tour of the United States.
In Atlanta, their first stop, they were startled by the vehemence of a portly black former city official who accused the Japanese of racism. Akihito smoothly thanked his interlocutor, Rev. Hosea L. Williams, for his ``admirable question.''
In Washington, they were the stars at the first white-tie dinner given by the president and Mrs. Clinton since entering the White House 17 months ago, dining on exotic Arctic char (raised in Iceland - its flavor a cross between salmon and trout) and sushi-shaped sweets. The guest list included Hollywood stars Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand as well as the chief executive officers of top American corporations.
Akihito and Michiko watched big-league baseball in St. Louis and admired the splendor of the Rockies in Colorado. Their only potentially controversial stop, a visit to the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, was cancelled by Japanese officials last month from fear of protests by Japanese rightist organizations, who don't want the Emperor to be seen to be apologizing for the attack on Pearl Harbor half a century ago.
So what does such a visit, in which no matters of state are discussed, do for US-Japanese relations? Admittedly it does more for the atmospherics of the relationship than for substantive matters like the nuclear threat from North Korea, or a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
But atmospherics are not unimportant. They set the tone and flavor of a relationship.
At a time when the economic aspects of the US-Japan connection are troubled and the irritation level on both sides is high, it helps to have non-political visitors reaffirm the underlying strength of the relationship.
If Americans are fascinated by the exoticism of emperorship in Japan, the Japanese have been equally fascinated by the egalitarianism of an elected presidency and by the workings of the American democratic system. The fascination goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the first Japanese envoys visited Washington while Lincoln was president and the Civil War was going on.
In 1879 Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and just-retired president of the US, visited Japan during a world tour and had a long conversation with Emperor Meiji, who was then still in his late-20s and determined to modernize Japan based on the Western model.
Meiji's great-grandson Akihito's visit features a look at the original document of Lincoln's Gettysburg address and a stopover in Monticello, Jefferson's home. Akihito's own view of the US and of the importance of democracy, freedom, and individual rights was shaped by having an American tutor, the Quaker author Elizabeth Gray Vining, during his lonely teens - a period when, as with all previous Crown Princes, he was brought up separately from his parents and sisters, under the tutelage of stern, elderly chamberlains.
Akihito broke with tradition to find his own commoner bride, and the imperial couple flouted tradition again to insist on bringing up their children themselves. Empress Michiko, though softspoken, clearly has a mind of her own, and played a large role in letting fresh breezes blow through the stuffy confines of the imperial household.
The process took many years and is still far from complete. But there is an air of bourgeois normalcy about the imperial family these days that is a far cry from the curtained and exalted privacy of previous monarchs, up to and including Akihito's father Hirohito.
As a ``symbol of state'' under Japan's postwar constitution, Akihito is not considered ``divine,'' as was Hirohito. He doesn't even appoint ministers and ambassadors, as does Queen Elizabeth of England - he merely ``attests'' these appointments. He's a good cellist (Michiko plays the harp), a steady tennis player, and a distinguished ichthyologist (that is, he is an expert in the scientific study of fish).
Akihito is clearly conscious of his position as 125th in an imperial line stretching back to pre-Christian times. He knows that at least part of the charm of royalty is its mystique - the sense of belonging to a world separate from the humdrum realities of daily existence. He also knows that royalty must move with the times - that ordinary people have to consider it relevant and meaningful. He and Michiko have tried to balance these two requirements, and have done so with considerable skill, especially on their visits overseas.
Their son, Crown Prince Naruhito, emulated his father by choosing and winning his bride, a Harvard-educated career diplomat. So, step by careful step, Japan's monarchy evolves with its people, reminding them of their heritage but not entrapped by it, adding a lustrous dimension to Japan's presence on the world stage.