Emperor of Japan

November 13, 1990

When modernizers seized power in Japan in 1868 and "restored" the Meiji emperor, they revitalized an ancient belief that he was divine. Veneration distracted from rapid change and westernization of Japan. The Showa emperor, Hirohito, was useful to the militarists who attacked Pearl Harbor, to the Americans who occupied Japan afterward and, until his death early last year, to the political-commercial oligarchy that has directed Japanese affairs since.

Now his son, Akihito, has ascended the throne of the oldest continuous monarchy while an uncertain political leadership tries to decide what direction the prosperous country he personifies will take.

The most trenchant critics charge that Japan has no leaders, only a system of self-perpetuating interests. The prime minister placed in power by party bosses to be weak, Toshiki Kaifu, was surprisingly strong until he stumbled doing Washington's bidding in the Persian Gulf crisis.

The country most dependent on Persian Gulf oil agreed to send unarmed military personnel on logistic missions until the Japanese people, who had been compelled by an American-written constitution to be pacifist, objected. The government backed down. Mr. Kaifu's magic appears gone. The unwillingness of Japanese people to allow their military forces abroad, however, is at least welcome throughout Asia, where memories of Japanese military force are not pleasant.

Under prodding by the U.S. Congress, Japan is committed to $4 billion in aid, half to the military presence in Saudi Arabia, half to stricken Middle Eastern countries. And the Kaifu government still hopes to send a scaled-down civilian corps of a few hundred medical and humane workers. But even this is in doubt.

Japan's prosperity is not immune to the winds whipping the world's economies. Under threat of American protectionist reprisal, the regime is trying to pry open the closed world of inefficient retailing but won't budge on rice import barriers. Japan's obligations in the Gulf crisis threaten countries that, however resentful, depend on Japanese investment, the U.S. among them. With the sky-high prices of Japanese real estate finally falling, Japanese banks are stretched thin.

That is the real world, against which the enthronement of an emperor is only beautiful ritual.

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