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Image-Building a Goal of Japan Emperor's Visit


Emperor Hirohito and Mickey Mouse, posing side-by-side at Disneyland: The image was perhaps the greatest achievement of the former priest-king's first visit to the United States, in 1975.

Although some thought it undignified, the photograph conveyed just how much had changed in 30 years. The implacable enemy had become a friend, and the once awe-inspiring emperor had become the grandfatherly symbol of a country with a democratic constitution and a penchant for American pop culture.

Today, nearly two decades later, the late Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito, 60, and his wife, Empress Michiko, 59, arrive in Los Angeles. And while they will not be heading to the amusement park--Tokyo, after all, now has its own Disneyland--they again will be embarking on a task of image-building.

The goal this time is to let Los Angeles know that the distant islands facing its coast are home to a people who want to be friends as well as investors and trading partners.

The eighth city on the imperial couple's 16-day American tour, Los Angeles has a more intense relationship with Japan than any other in the United States.

The city's skyline was transformed by the flow of capital from Japan in the 1980s--decades after fear of bombers coming from the same direction helped create the city's industrial might. Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country, along with immigrants from China, Korea and other Asian countries who are still angry at Japan's wartime aggression.

The mix of respect and resentment, which the politically powerless but symbolically potent emperor gets whenever he goes abroad, shows one thing still hasn't changed since Hirohito's time. Japan still is the only Asian country to have joined the upper echelon of Western industrial nations.

The institution of the emperor is inescapably linked with that achievement, and its problems. It was the emperor, taken from seclusion in Kyoto and presented to the nation in a Prussian-style military uniform, that a group of ambitious samurai used as the symbol of Japan's 19th-Century drive to modernize.

It was the emperor that militarists used to rally their push to become a colonial power, and to attack the United States. It was the emperor that Gen. Douglas MacArthur used to represent postwar Japan's transition to democracy. And it is the current emperor--a modest family man, amateur ichthyologist, and speaker of English--who Japan hopes will present a friendly face to the world today.

The imperial couple has focused on meeting "ordinary people" on their trip, including those from many ethnic backgrounds. They dined on American-style food--not French cuisine--at the White House, visited Thomas Jefferson's home, called on MacArthur's widow and were scheduled to spend the night at a private citizen's home in Colorado.

In Los Angeles, they will have lunch with Mayor Richard Riordan and representatives of many ethnic communities of the city, have dinner with 650 local notables, view the Lincoln exhibition at the Huntington Library, see their old friends the Reagans, visit an exhibition on Japanese immigrants in Little Tokyo, and visit a Japanese American retirement home.

Martha Kawamura, an energetic 97-year-old resident of the home, said she finds the imperial couple appealing because of their public courtship back in the 1950s--on a tennis court. Kawamura, who is old enough to remember being in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, recalled how her own first marriage was arranged, and proved less than satisfactory.

"It's different when you fall in love first and then get married," she said. "I'm glad their marriage was for love."

Empress Michiko is a commoner, she notes, and the marriages of their two sons to American-educated commoners has also made the emperor and empress seem less distant.

On the other hand, 81-year-old Jack Shinagawa, born in Sacramento but raised until age 18 in Japan, feels no particular affection for the emperor and empress. He remembers when Emperor Hirohito's train passed through his town--everyone had to line up and bow to it as it passed, never daring to look up.

"I thought it was kind of silly," Shinagawa said. "To me, (their visit) is a small event. I'm an American citizen."

Wherever the emperor goes, he is dogged by the past. The official transcribers of last week's White House speeches made the same slip that many almost did, referring to Akihito as "Emperor Hirohito."

Unlike Germany, Japan is widely seen as not facing up to its wartime past. In Washington and Atlanta, the emperor encountered protests by Chinese and Korean Americans of Japan's lack of apology for wartime aggression.

On June 12, about 300 Chinese Americans, including survivors of the Nanking massacre, gathered in Monterey Park to protest the visit and demand war reparations and an apology. They plan to protest Tuesday near City Hall as well.

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