In a small nod to mass appeal, the government confers cultural awards on popular figures, but these account for about five of the 20,000 dispensed annually. Those in favor of reform also complain that the conservative selection system places far more weight on prestige and large organizations than merit, entrepreneurship or any innovation that might threaten the status quo--and help lead Japan out of its political and economic morass.
The system also carries some heavy historical baggage given its role in World War II, when it inspired visions of imperial honor and the prospect of official recognition.
The rigid order of eight grades is closely associated with Japan's old military structure. The date of this month's awards ceremony, the 29th, is wartime Emperor Hirohito's birthday. And decorative medals are still adorned with the blazing sun image found on battle flags throughout the war.
"The whole system elevates the old guard and undermines young people," said Tomokazu Ohsono, journalist and author of the book "Decoration System: Behind the Scenes." "Most people don't realize how closely it's tied to the old imperial system, although it clearly is."
Although the honor and glory that come with this recognition are arguably priceless, the cost gets pretty steep. Japan spends about $18 million annually on the medals, ribbons and boxes alone, not counting the upkeep for about 65 bureaucrats and the estimated 100 artisans who support the system. The Decoration Bureau won't disclose its total budget.
With the public starting to take more notice of the system's inequities, a government committee recently mapped out the first real reform in more than a century. Its recommendations include granting more awards to ordinary people and ending the strict eight-tier ranking system. But the power of tradition suggests that any change will be modest at best.
"It's pretty difficult to reduce the number of bureaucrats who win," said Kazumichi Sakamoto, a Decoration Bureau section head. "There are so many people on the waiting list that it would be disruptive."
Medals are handmade by Mint Bureau craftspeople drawing on skills once used to hammer out samurai swords. Only the very best are allowed to work on the most intricate medals, which can take up to six months to make and cost $46,000 apiece.
At a wooden desk littered with tools and brushes on the second floor of a long, low building in Tokyo, artisan Hiroo Kato stoops over part of a Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Grade, filing away tiny imperfections he's spotted through a magnifying glass. Beside him sits a glass jar with silver flecks collected from his labors. He worked for 33 years before being given such a high-ranking medal to work on.
"I'm very proud," he says. "Sometimes when I see them giving out awards on TV, I can't help but wonder if it's the one I worked on."
President Eisenhower, recipient of an award in 1960, once called Japan's medals the most beautiful in the world. And in the 1980s, Satoshi Hakamada, a five-decade master craftsman, spoke angrily about how occupying U.S. soldiers stole several from a safe shortly after the 1945 armistice.
The emperor confers the awards at biannual ceremonies--April 29 and Nov. 3--with the highest grades largely reserved for him and his family, although President Reagan was given one, as were three Japanese prime ministers. The orders and medals are made of gold, silver, pearls and cloisonne bedecked with red, white, black, purple, yellow, orange and blue ribbons.
A handful of the very highest-ranking winners have theirs bestowed personally by the emperor in ceremonies lasting about a minute. Lawmaker Kanezo Muraoka, who rehearsed every step before his big moment last year, said it was among the proudest days of his life.
Thousands of lower-ranking recipients, meanwhile, have theirs handed to them on chartered buses as they're routed through the palace for pictures. Given the awards' 70-plus age requirement, moving the winners and their spouses on and off the buses can be time-consuming.
Those receiving the highest categories wear top-end frock coats or special crest-emblazoned silk kimonos, which can cost upward of $12,000 and take 40 days to make.
Once the awards are received, tradition dictates that recipients wear them only at the most formal of events to preserve the dignity and prestige of the system. As a result, many septuagenarians wear them only twice: once at the ceremony itself and once in their caskets.
Award holders quickly become the talk of their towns--and the target of hungry salespeople--in much the same way U.S. lottery winners are besieged. By regulation, only the recipient is allowed to wear the medal. In reality, there's a vibrant secondhand market amid reports of medal-bedecked collectors parading around their houses admiring themselves in the mirror.
Collectors pay upward of $150,000 for the rarest awards. Antiques dealer Katsuo Nakahori was so taken with the awards, he squirreled away 100 during a lifetime of collecting. He even named his son after an award.
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.