THE JAPANESE hardly ever see Emperor Hirohito. It is only about 15 times a year that the gates of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo open and a custom Nissan Royal limousine rolls across the moat to carry the emperor and his ceremonial sword and stone toward some ritual of life on the throne: the opening of parliament, the viewing of a sumo wrestling match, the greeting of a state visitor.

Part of the reason is age. He is 84. Though his health continues to be strong (doctors confirm that once a day with a check of pulse and temperature), palace officials take no chances and over the years have curtailed his schedule.

But more important is the desire -- it is never quite clear whose -- to maintain an aura of mystery. He has never been a people's monarch. He may today be just a powerless "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people," his official designation in the postwar constitution, but he is still emperor of Japan, 124th in what is called the world's oldest unbroken royal line, starting with the Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C. In Japan, standards are maintained in everything, most of all the imperial family.

This week, the emperor will get some unusual scrutiny and acclaim here. The occasion is the official celebration of his 60th year on the throne, which the government is preparing to celebrate in grand fashion at a sumo stadium on his birthday, April 29. A deluge of books, magazines and television programs are appearing that look back over the long and tumultuous reign known as Showa, the era of enlightened peace.

Hirohito came to power in 1926, revered by millions of Japanese as a demi-god. He presided over a war in which a generation of young men marched off hoping for the honor of being slaughtered in his name. In 1945, he was demoted to mortal being, his property was confiscated and he narrowly escaped prosecution as a war criminal. Since then he has seen his country rise again to world prominence, this time through economic achievement.

These were wrenching, historic changes. But the one thing that stayed constant through them all was the face in the palace. In a way, the emperor has lived up fully to his job of somehow personifying everything Japanese. During the days of war and militarism, he was the nation's young commander-in-chief, weighed down in braid and epaulets. In the post-war period he was the humble supplicant, calling hat-in-hand on Gen. Douglas MacArthur and suffering some of the material privation that millions of Japanese did. Today, he is the aging workaholic, surrounded by post-war prosperity but unwilling to unwind and enjoy it.

"He appears to me a product of pure culture, not subject to one's likes or dislikes," a president of the Japan Bar Association, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, once put it.

There are strong views on all of this behind his passive gaze, no doubt, but outsiders have never heard a real account of them. We have only his cryptic statements, a few letters and the guarded words of people who served near him. He has never written memoirs and has never been subject to official questioning, not even by the Allies at the war's end. Perhaps no man has loomed so large in the events of the 20th century without ever having to explain himself.

But by most accounts, he is in fact the modest, benevolent man described in official publications. He is nearsighted and walks with slight shuffle. He truly seems happiest at the microscope in the palace laboratory where he has built a world reputation in the study of the marine micro-organisms known as hydrozoa.

He once said that he dreamed of escaping being emperor for just a day. But it has remained a dream. Hirohito is a model of devotion to duty. He executes the dull clerking duties of modern monarchy with diligence, putting his signature and seal to about 1,200 official documents a year. He greets perfect strangers with a broad smile and is rarely heard in public to say anything more controversial then "ah so desu-ka?" (is that so?).

Though enduring in old age, Hirohito was sickly and small at birth in 1901 and almost died. Following the imperial custom, he was separated from his parents at an early age. Through childhood, tutors followed him around, stopping him from jumping and other potentially dangerous play. Later, he was not even free to read a newspaper, with court officials instead clipping articles that they felt were suitable reading for him.

Early on, he showed a strong scientific bent, arguing with his teachers over the biological impossibility of his descendance from the sun goddess Amaterasu. He acquired his interest in marine biology in part because his crowd of retainers could not follow him onto the boat used for collecting specimens.

In 1921, as crown prince, he made a six-month tour of Europe. Though packed with ceremony, to him the trip was a first taste of freedom. He learned to eat ham and eggs for breakfast with King George V, toured World War I battlefields in France and rode the Paris metro, pocketing instead of returning the ticket at the ride's end. Fifty years later, he still kept it as a souvenir

"My life up until then was like that of a bird in a cage," the emperor said in 1970, in one of his few memorable remarks on his personal life. Some in the court worried the young prince had been polluted by western liberalism. But he proved to be no rebel. In 1924 he courted and married according to tradition -- his bride was Princess Nagako. In 1926 took the throne on the death of his dissolute and feeble-minded father Taisho.

The Showa era began with great optimism. The country had emerged from World War I as one of the victorious allies. Its fleet and army were growing and, people thought, it was finally going to assume its proper place in Asia and the world community.

Historians will forever argue what role was played in the pre-war years by the young emperor, who was often photographed in those days in military uniform atop a white stallion. Japan soon began its expansion into China and continued to build the institutions of extreme nationalism, with the emperor as their focus.

Sympathetic historians contend he was a man of peace denied authority by both tradition and the constitution. They say that against his will he was made the puppet of the militarists around him but nonetheless spoke up against use of force whenever he got the chance.

In 1931, when the Japanese army provoked an incident that was used as a pretext to seize Manchuria from China, Hirohito is recorded as having told his war minister, "I appreciate fully your effort not to escalate the incident any further. Keep up with your effort fully." In 1936, he scolded ministers for not ending quickly a military mutiny that had taken control of parts of Tokyo and offered to go into the street himself to quell it.

In a 1941 cabinet meeting in which the option of war with the U.S. was discussed, Hirohito stunned his ministers by reading a poem that asked, "Why then do the winds and waves of strife disrupt the peace between us?" When war finally did come, he refused to sign the declaration until the following words had been inserted: "It has been truly unavoidable and far from Our wishes that Our empire has now been brought to cross swords with America and Britain."

Finally, in 1945, with the cabinet deadlocked, came Hirohito's decision to surrender, despite pressure from the military to fight to the end. He told his ministers that "if we continue the war, the whole land will be burnt to the ground completely." Japan surrendered and Hirohito went on the radio to tell his people they must "bear the unbearable." It was the first time most had ever heard his voice.

This year there have come to light letters the emperor wrote several weeks after that decision to his son, Crown Prince Akihito, one of seven children born to him. "Our people believed in the imperial state too much and held Britain and the United States in contempt," he wrote. He also faulted his commanders' tactics in the field: "Our military men placed too much significance on spirit and were oblivious of science."

In the few instances in which the emperor has spoken on the war, he has claimed powerlessness. "At the time of the outbreak of the war and also before the war, when the cabinet made decisions I could not override their decisions," he said some years ago. "I believe this was in accordance with the provisions of the Japanese constitution."

But the question remains, if he could end the war on his own, why could he not have prevented it from starting? Hirohito's detractors say he did not want to, that he was as much a chauvinist as his generals. He was commander in chief. In ceremonial dress, he reviewed troops bound for battle, exhorted full sacrifice and took detailed interest in operations up and down the Pacific. He never stopped the extreme practices of emperor worship, under which young men died with his name on their lips and streetcars passing the palace stopped so that everyone could get out and bow.

Whatever the truth, after the war, he escaped prosecution and probably hanging as a war criminal (that was the fate Britain and the Soviet Union had in mind) only because MacArthur decided his cooperation was crucial to pacifying the beaten country.

The surrender began a new existence for Hirohito as well as the Japanese in general. A few weeks after it, he rode for the first time from the palace to call on a superior, MacArthur. According to the general's memoirs, Hirohito offered himself as the man responsible for every act committed by the Japanese during the war. MacArthur was surprised, he later said. He had expected a plea for clemency.

Demystifying the emperor was key to reforms in occupied Japan. In 1946, Hirohito went on the radio to reject "the fictional concept that the emperor is a living god and and the Japanese people are superior to other people and have a destiny to rule the world." Historian Ikuhiko Hata says it was not a trauma for the scientist monarch. "He was liberated by this announcement. After it, it was no longer necessary to behave as a demi-god."

In following years, again with some prodding from MacArthur's office, Japan got as close as it ever has to a European-style open monarchy. By plane, automobile and train, Hirohito traveled all over his country, hiked down into coal mines, talked to orphans and penniless repatriates from the empire's lost holdings and toured hospital wards. Wherever he went, he gave pious words of encouragement to keep the chin up, rebuild the country and get on with life.

His standard of living dropped along with everyone else's. When communist demonstrators swarmed over the imperial kitchen during a post-war rally, Hata says, "they opened every door and shelf and discovered almost nothing. The emperor's food situation was almost the same as ordinary Japanese'."

But after the occupation ended in 1951, the "chrysanthemum curtain" began to fall again and has remained down. The Japanese public has seen little of him for the last 30 years. Foreigners have seen more, however. It was decided the imperial couple should become good-will ambassadors and they traveled abroad, where Hirohito in vague terms voiced regret for the war. They visited Europe in 1971 and the United States in 1975. The emperor acquired a Mickey Mouse watch at Disneyland and it became part of the lore that he wore it for years afterward.

Today he and the Empress Nagako live in a two-floored, cement-walled house with elevator. At 83, her health is failing (she never fully recovered from a broken hip suffered in 1977) and she is frequently absent from official duties. But according to the palace, he keeps close to his years-old schedule. He rises at 7 a.m., shaves with an electric razor and dresses himself. The ham and eggs he was introduced to in England are rarely served these days. The palace favors a low-fat diet of toast, oatmeal, milk and fruit.

Most days he rides to the main palace building for the business of paperwork, ambassadorial presentation of credentials and audiences for government officials. Lunch is taken at home, followed by more work. Several days a week he goes to his laboratory. At last count, he had written seven books on marine biology and assisted in 15 others.

He also performs various ceremonies in Shintoism, the animistic traditional faith of japan. Some do not exist in written form and must be passed by word of mouth from father to son. On Jan. 1 there is a ceremony of praying in four directions; on June 30 another to wipe away evil and purify; on Nov. 23 one to give thanks for the harvest. The emperor plants rice in the spring and harvests in the autumn, in a ceremony meant to embody all the fields of the nation. "It symbolizes that the emperor eats with the gods, slumbers with the gods," says author Hideaki Kase.

Once in the spring and again in autumn, he invites to a palace reception about 1,500 people held to have served society well that year. Once a year, the family holds a poetry-writing contest, with the emperor selecting subjects such as motherhood, travel or cherries.

In the meantime, a new generation has appeared. About 60 percent of the 120 million Japanese alive today were born after the war. For many of them, the emperor's isolation leads to apathy, not reverence; he is seen more often than not as an old man who played some unfathomable role in their parents' lives. They learn next to nothing of him in school. Seventy percent of people in their 20s told a recent newspaper poll that they have no feelings one way or another about the emperor.

What interest there is often stems from a feeling, similar to that in the United States, that royalty means class. Said high school student Megumi Yoshida, 17: "It's nice when state guests come to Japan to have an imperial family to receive them, not just a prime minister. It's more chic."

Still, among the people who count in Japan -- the leaders of big business and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party -- the emperor will always be a very special person. They were young officers when Japan surrendered and all swore to die for him.

For Toshi Yamaguchi, the 83-year-old wife of a former naval officer, it is a gut feeling. "I don't understand difficult questions like what the meaning of the emperor is today," she says, "but I can say that he is very important to Japan. I don't even want to think that the system would stop."

The far right wants the emperor's divine status restored. The far left wants the institution abolished. But in mainstream Japanese society, the sentiment is to keep things exactly as they are. So, every spring, the Diet votes without question the budget for the imperial household -- about $580 million in the year that ended March 31 for general costs plus about $2.7 million for private allowances. Even legislators from the Communist Party go along with the vote, though they demand that the palace play no role in politics.

Every now and then, however, the palace does play politics, or at least people think it does. In the early 1970s, as opposition parties were trying to torpedo a defense budget proposal as too high, the cabinet's defense chief went on a call at the palace. Emerging from the meeting, this man said the emperor had remarked that Japan's armed forces were small in comparison to neighboring countries and thus couldn't see what the fuss was about. Later, the defense chief resigned for breaking the protocol that such conversations are private.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is now taking some heat for scheduling the celebrations this week instead of on the actual anniversary of the ascension, Dec. 25. Nakasone's current term as prime minister expires Oct. 30 and he is widely believed to be looking for an extension. The Socialists and Communists complain that he is using the emperor and celebrations to build good will for himself.

It will blow over. It always does. Everything connected with the emperor is predictable, like his invitation to the public to visit the palace at New Year's. The wooden gates are thrown open and people pass through in throngs (137,000 last January). Among them are grey-haired members of the war generation who turn misty-eyed at his name. Teenagers in jeans and running shoes look over the stone walls and gaze at the famous man.

A loudspeaker calls the crowd to order and presently the emperor steps out onto a glass-enclosed balcony above them, his family at his side. A sea of paper flags held aloft by the visitors begins to flutter and the emperor waves in response, continuing until a discrete whisper in his ear by a court official. Then come a few sentences in the throaty trademark voice (Japanese say no one sounds quite like the emperor.) "Happy New Year," he says. "It is my pleasure to see all of you in good health. I do hope that this year will be a good one for you too." With that he retires inside again.