TOKYO — What the public hears nowadays about Emperor Hirohito, a ruler once considered a god by most Japanese, seldom rises above the mundane.
To a note asking "Please write to me," which a 9-year-old schoolboy attached to a helium-filled balloon that floated by chance into the Imperial Palace grounds Feb. 15, the emperor had his chamberlain send a reply. The boy and his schoolmates went into a dither of excitement.
On March 18, the Japanese public was told that Hirohito arose before 4 a.m. to take the second look in his lifetime at Halley's Comet.
"I was pleased that I could observe Halley's Comet with its clear tail. I feel fortunate to have seen it twice," Hirohito was quoted by officials of his Imperial Household Agency as saying.
That remark was more than the public learned about the emperor's letter to the Tokyo schoolboy. Its contents were kept secret.
Deification, Power Gone
Such has been the life since 1945 of the man in whose name war was declared and Japan's unconditional surrender was accepted. Publicly denying on Jan. 1, 1946, that he had ever been a god, Hirohito today performs only a ceremonial role. Seen rarely by most Japanese, he keeps busy affixing his seal to official documents, consulting occasionally with officials, and indulging his passion for marine biology.
At least 40% of the Japanese people, including 70% of people in their 20s, are apathetic about him, according to polls. But for many of the rest, emotions can be intense.
The government on Tuesday will stage a special ceremony to mark Hirohito's 60 years on the throne. The ceremony, together with a banquet May 6 at which Hirohito will play host to the visiting leaders attending the economic summit meeting in Tokyo, has for the moment focused an unaccustomed spotlight on the emperor.
The ceremony is not scheduled on the real 60th anniversary, which is Dec. 26, of Hirohito's ascension to the throne as the 124th (including mythological ones) in a supposedly unbroken line of monarchs. Instead, it is being held six months early, on the 85th birthday of Japan's oldest and longest-reigning emperor.
Not everyone is happy about the ceremony. The Socialists, the main opposition party, have said that they will boycott the celebration. Citing Japanese aggression against other Asian nations in World War II, a war fought in Hirohito's name, they say the ceremony "bears the heavy history of the past."
Small bands of leftist radicals have declared their intention to disrupt the celebration as well as the economic summit. In the last six months, these radicals have fired rockets at the U.S. Embassy, the grounds of the Imperial Palace and those of Crown Prince Akihito's residence. Also targeted were Osaka police headquarters and a U.S. air base. None of the rockets exploded.
For their part, rightist groups have twice attacked strongholds of the leftists and have threatened further retaliation if there are any more attacks on the Imperial Palace.
Hirohito is scheduled to receive well-wishers Tuesday from a balcony at the palace, a twice-a-year practice that started in 1948. It will be from a bulletproof glass-enclosed balcony, and an army of 30,000 police will be on full alert.
Not Personally Felt
Very few Japanese are expected to do anything to mark the occasion other than take the day off. The emperor's birthday is a national holiday, but to most Japanese the emperor is a remote figure.
Still, in daily life, Japanese face constant, if indirect, reminders of the emperor. The imperial chrysanthemum crest is imprinted on their passports. The national anthem, "Kimigayo," is a prayer for the eternal preservation of the monarchy. The calendar marks the reign of each emperor. Showa, or "enlightened peace," is the name that has been given to Hirohito's era.
Yet, asked how they feel toward Hirohito, 40% of the people polled by the Asahi newspaper last month said they felt "nothing at all." Another 33% mentioned feelings of "respect." Only 22% said they felt friendly toward him.
Traditionally, "the Japanese royal family was not considered a friend or a colleague in the same society," Chiyoko Teranishi, a Foreign Ministry protocol officer, told the Japan Times. "Rather, they were revered as immortals. We look at them as something like gods."
Government officials, the Imperial Household Agency and the police continue to treat the emperor as if he were still sacrosanct.
"The great majority of Japanese (in World War II) loved their country and tried to protect the emperor system, which is the central core of Japan," Nakasone recently said. "This is the broad current in the history of the Japanese race. Indeed, the fact that this flow (of history) has been treated with care is why we enjoy our present prosperity."