For the first time in 16 years, American Ballet Theatre is back in Japan. And the Kennedy Center's resident company, used to performing for presidents, has been performing for crown princes.

At the opening-night gala in Tokyo, kicking off the dance troupe's three-week tour, Emperor Hirohito's son Akihito and his nephew Norihito led a glittering crowd at the 3,400-seat NHK Hall.

The evening set the tone for what may well become one of ABT's most popular -- and certainly its best-produced and most luxurious -- foreign tours. Under the sponsorship of the Japan Performing Arts Foundation, the company is offering 17 performances, from Oct. 25 to Nov. 11, in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Impresario Tadatsugu Sasaki has arranged the tour with style, covering all the costs of transportation to Japan for dancers, staff and material, as well as production costs here. The ABT dancers are being hosted at the luxurious new Otani, Asia's largest hotel, which also boasts a 10-acre, 400-year-old Japanese garden. Backstage guests have included Japanese fashion designers, film stars and kabuki actors.

The company has brought two full-length productions, Bournonville's classic "La Sylphide" and ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov's staging of "Don Quixote" in a new scenic design by Santo Loquasto. A repertory of shorter ballets is showing the company's stylistic range and providing the Japanese with several decidedly American creations, such as Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Great Galloping Gottschalk" and Twyla Tharp's "The Little Ballet."

Although Baryshnikov's choreography is represented, the dancer is in London, completing filming for "White Nights," in which he stars with Broadway dancer Gregory Hines. His absence has been a source of disappointment to fans, as has that of Cynthia Gregory, whose last-minute cancellation was caused by the death of her husband.

ABT's dozen other principals -- part of a full company roster of some 90 dancers -- have received surprisingly voluble responses from audiences in a country where decorum is usually the rule. Fernando Bujones, Cynthia Harvey and Kevin McKenzie were already familiar to Japanese ballet enthusiasts from previous guest and festival spots, and other dancers, like Marianna Tcherkassky, Martine van Hamel, Patrick Bissell and Robert La Fosse, have also wowed the crowds.

"Opening night was fantastic," said Harvey. "We were told not to expect too much applause, but we got lots of curtain calls, flowers and even bravos."

At the stage door, there were also autograph hounds, "only here they're more gracious," Harvey said. "They don't call you by your first name and shove the program in your face, as in America."

As a good proportion of the Japanese audience is young, and a majority female, many of the male dancers find themselves adulated in a way uncommon back home. Ross Stretton, on a post-performance subway ride back to his hotel, was surrounded by a dozen schoolgirls and college students with souvenir programs and ready pens. And it is the virtuoso male variations that seem to elicit the greatest applause. The comic yet athletic male duet in "Gottschalk" has been almost a show-stopper.

Among the dancers, Marianna Tcherkassky and soloist Elaine Kudo have each found particular welcome. Both are half-Japanese, and Kudo, born in a small town near Tokyo, still has many relatives in the country, particularly in Asahikawa, on the northern island of Hokkaido, where she spent a year in grade school while living with her aunt's family.

When the tour concludes she and her husband will travel to Hokkaido for a family reunion. In Tokyo, her fans have included an uncle who had never seen ballet before. "The family presence has given an extra charge to my performances," Kudo said. "I feel I've probably pushed a little harder."

ABT's next stop after Japan is Washington, where the company celebrates its 45th American season, at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Dec. 18, continuing through Jan. 6.

The company will perform an entirely different repertory from its Japan tour (since there was a risk that the returning shipment of sets and costumes would not arrive in time) and will feature a world premiere by postmodern choreographer David Gordon and the first American production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's full-length "Romeo and Juliet."