SONS OF HEAVEN A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy By Jerrold M. Packard Scribners. 400 pp. $25

JAPAN'S ROYAL FAMILY was very much in the news this past fall, but not for the high jinks we associate with, say, Britain. In September Hirohito became the first emperor ever to suffer a surgeon's knife, a matter of some surprise when you consider that the world's first operation under anesthesia (using morning glory seeds) took place in Japan almost 200 years ago. In October, Crown Prince Akihito shortened his tour of America from 17 to 7 days, disappointingly. And as of this writing, the 86-year old emperor is still recuperating from the operation but has resumed some of his official functions.

Over the past few months Japanese television and radio reporters have been scouring the world for interviews with people who have actually met Emperor Hirohito. These reminiscences will be broadcast on the day of mourning when the emperor "hides in the clouds." Media stations all plan 24-hour programs to be devoted exclusively to him, his life and times. And what times they are! Hirohito's reign has outlasted that of any other living monarch, and its time span lacks only three years to equal Queen Victoria's record 64 years. Incidentally, she died the year of Hirohito's birth -- 1901.

Jerrold M. Packard, a professional writer based in Portland, Oregon, has three books to his credit: The Queen and Her Court: A Guide to the British Monarchy; American Monarchy: A Social Guide to the Presidency; and Peter's Kingdom: Inside the Papal City. For Sons of Heaven, Packard casts his plutocratic eye on Japan: "a confounding land . . . almost inconceivably different," the author admits. There he finds "the world's most ancient throne," and he marvels, as will the reader, at "the extraordinary lasting power of a dynasty that reached the height of refinement when Europe was still struggling with near-universal ignorance."

Opening with an alluring chapter on the pomp, circumstance and panoply of Hirohito's ascension in 1926, the writer quickly and dutifully takes us through the labyrinth of 71 generations and 124 emperors beginning in 660 B.C. With lightning strokes he covers 2,000 years of history and mythology. He tells us that the early 5th-century tomb of Emperor Nintoku, half-a-mile long and covering 80 acres "rivals the Pyramids in building skill and grandeur." In the 8th to 13th centuries "the struggle with clans who took temporal power while leaving the emperors their remote inaccessibility" resulted in a maze of queens-regnant, child emperors, empress-queens and imperial abdications and retirements.

With Japan's modern era beginning in the mid-19th century, Sons of Heaven picks up interest for the general reader. Regarding the Meiji Restoration of imperial authority and Japan's westernization, Packard says presumptuously, "If -- a big if -- Japan could rebuild herself to the status of an international power, then reasoned the shogunate, the doors could perhaps be slammed again." He also mentions the adoption of foreign clothes at Court, but omits the embarrassing fact that in 1888 two presidential wives, Mesdames Grover Cleveland and James Garfield, dispatched a letter of remonstrance to the Japanese throne protesting the wearing of European gowns by ladies of the palace.

As for the Meiji Constitution, at one point Packard calls it "the perfect recipe for despotism," and on a later page he writes, "By 1931 the constitutional safeguards broke down and Japan found itself committed to a course of totalitarianism." Yet, despite the lip service today's Japanese pay to their new imposed constitution, the old, original Meiji one in which the Emperor is to be "reverenced," as opposed to "revered," is a powerfully benevolent document, as moving in its rectitude as our own.

The sketch of Hirohito's life tells how he was precipitated into the Regency due to his father's mental incapacity from cerebral anemia. In 1921 at age 20 while still Crown Prince, Hirohito made a precedent-breaking tour of Europe. He played golf with Edward, Prince of Wales. King George, draped in an old dressing gown and wearing carpet slippers, shuffled into his bedroom and slapped him on the back. He rode the Metro of Paris incognito and still keeps the ticket stub as a souvenir. "The happiest six months of my life," the emperor recalled at his unique press conference in 1946, held at the encouragement of MacArthur during the Occupation of a vanquished Japan.

One of the many self-defeating contradictions of the Occupation was how MacArthur, whom Packard calls unstintingly "the greatest genius in American military history," increasingly wrapped himself in clouds of invisibility while urging the emperor to go out among the people. This counsel came, ironically, from a man who in all 2,000 of his days in Japan, never took a walk in Tokyo, never went sight-seeing, never visited, let alone reviewed his troops, never toured a hospital for the wounded. As part of the Occupation's "demystifying" of the emperor, the Japanese were also required to perform Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. It did not have the hoped for effect.

MacArthur was tremendously touched when on 27 September 1945, the 44-year-old emperor called at the American Embassy to pay his respects to the supreme commander of the Allied powers a month after the Occupation began. General MacArthur, then 64, thought the emperor would plead for his life. Instead, when he offered to substitute himself for the war criminals confined in Sugamo prison, MacArthur was stunned. He knew little of things Japanese and had never heard of migawari (to sacrifice one's life to save another). As the shouts in Washington of "Hang Hirohito!" grew louder, MacArthur grew deafer. Nevertheless, the Occupation continued its relentless intrusion into every aspect of Japanese life. Two-thirds of the emperor's assets were seized, 7,500 retainers on the palace payroll were fired, and titles except for the immediate imperial family abolished.

Sons of Heaven churns with solecisms, beginning with the translation of tenno. Lord or Ruler of Heaven is closer to the original Chinese hyperbole. "Voice of the Crane" is not "a euphemism for the sovereign," but refers to his words which, like the cry of the flying crane in the sky, can be heard long after the bird has vanished from sight. Yamato, the ancient name for Japan, does not mean nor is it written as "mountain road," nor can it by any stretch convey the idea of "paths to new conquest."

Errors are hardly consequential; however, misinterpretations can be. One example comes when Packard writes, "Hirohito has for six decades remained consistently stoic and aloof, as if still believing the ancient wisdom that his role is more divine than human." This, said about a man who, when asked to issue an imperial rescript renouncing his divinity, said, "How can I renounce what I have never claimed?" Packard also cites the emperor's New Year's poem of 1946: "The pine tree bears the weight of snow, but how green the spring." He describes it as "a tacit acceptance of his {the emperor's} own responsibility for the war," not long after Packard has otherwise stated that "Hirohito handed down hardly a single decision for which he had truly been the originating party." Clearly, the poem is no more than an exhortation to the people to endure the burden of the Occupation and to trust in the future.

It is regrettable that Sons of Heaven draws on so few sources of material. It is lamentable that works by Japanese authorities such as Naoki Inose whose book Tenno won a prize last year, and Miiko Sakai, author of Aru Kazoku no Showa Shi, a review of the nobility in the Showa (Hirohito's) era, were not consulted. Even more inexcusable is the absence of A.B. Mitford's Meiji memoirs from the bibliography.

Faubion Bowers, whose books include "Japanese Theatre," was General MacArthur's interpreter when Emperor Hirohito called at the embassy during the first month of the U.S. occupation of Japan.