ISE, JAPAN, NOV. 27 -- Emperor Akihito made a pilgrimage to Japan's holy of holies here today to inform the ancient Shinto deities of his enthronement, prompting renewed debate about a core question of the emperor's status in modern Japan: Is he a man, a god or both?
According to the post-World War II constitution imposed on Japan by U.S. occupation forces, the 56-year-old monarch is strictly a human, and a powerless one at that -- a "symbol of the state," devoid of any authority over the Japanese government or people.
But today, when Akihito came to the Grand Shrine of Ise, Shinto's equivalent of Mecca, he received a worshipful reception from a phalanx of white-robed priests as he was carried in a splendidly ornate horse-drawn carriage to a sacred temple where no human is permitted entry -- except the emperor, on this once-in-a-lifetime visit just after enthronement.
The formal purpose of the pilgrimage was for Akihito to tell the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, legendary ancestor of the imperial family, about the ceremony two weeks ago when he formally ascended the Chysanthemum Throne, the world's oldest hereditary monarchy.
On a cool, misty day, the emperor wore flowing brown robes and a black-plumed crown as he rode beneath a lush green canopy of towering cypresses and flowering camellias to his rendezvous at the sanctum sanctorum.
He was surrounded by the mixture of old and new, East and West, that is commonplace in modern Japan. Some of his footmen and courtiers wore antique kimonos; some wore the frilly lace and tricorn hats of 18th-century Europe; some wore the modern formal suits that Americans rent for weddings.
The priests and palace bureaucrats who designed today's rite replicated step by step the pilgrimage that was performed 62 years ago when Akihito's father, the late Emperor Hirohito, came here to report to the gods.
But this nation and its emperor have changed fundamentally since 1928. Hirohito took the throne under a constitution that declared him to be "sacred and inviolable." For their own political and military purposes, government leaders openly promoted the notion that the emperor was a divine being. When a school building burned down in the 1930s, the principal felt the need to commit suicide because the sacred portrait of the emperor had been destroyed.
The excesses of so-called "State Shinto" are now viewed here as a key reason for Japan's disastrous entry into World War II. Consequently, opinion polls routinely show that most Japanese reject the idea that the emperor is divine. Yet much of the Shinto priesthood and many Japanese people consider the emperor to be a kami, a Shinto word that is usually rendered in English as "god."
This apparent contradiction stems from a problem in translation. When the Japanese talk about kami, they do not mean "god" in any Western sense of the term.
"When we say 'kami,' we are not talking about some solitary god, some mighty god, like you have in Western religions," explained Kazumi Sano, a priest and theologian for the confederation of Shinto shrines.
"We have an expression, 'The 8 million kami,' " Sano continued. "Mountains, trees, even foxes can be gods. The souls of our ancestors are gods. So we may say the emperor has the life force, some divine power, but he is one of an infinite number of gods."
Indeed, not far from the imperial procession today, people were flocking around the seaside altar at Futami. The shrine is there to celebrate two divine rocks just off the Pacific coast.
But even under this diminished concept of godliness, treating an emperor as any sort of religious figure stirs bitter opposition among some Japanese.
Monday, shortly before the emperor and his family boarded the bullet train for the trip from Tokyo to this religious center, a terrorist bomb blew out a concrete wall alongside the track. No one was hurt, but bullet train traffic to and from Tokyo was halted from 6 to 8 a.m., the equivalent completely blocking the Capital Beltway during morning rush hour.
Akihito has not directly discussed the kami question. But in occasional public comments during the enthronement rites, he has regularly emphasized his constitutional status as a "symbol" and nothing more.
An amiable, unassuming man who favors sharply tailored double-breasted suits of banker's gray when he is not required to wear court regalia, Akihito seems perfectly at home with Japan's constitution and the powerless role it gives him.
His father evidently anguished over the military's drive to make him a divine being. Indeed, a photo here of Hirohito's pilgrimage shows him seated in the big ceremonial carriage with a glum face.
In sharp contrast, Akihito rode the carriage today sitting tall and proud, with the smile of a contented man flickering across his face.