MY INVITATION to meet the emperor of Japan, who formally ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne tomorrow, came this summer, as I sat alone in a squalid hotel room in Tokyo, eating a McDonald's hamburger and listening to the theme from "Rocky" on U.S. Armed Forces Radio. The caller, a young Japanese friend, put it simply: "Do you want to get an award from the emperor?" I saw no reason to refuse. "Hang up," said my patron, "and my friend will call you in 10 minutes with the details."

Ten minutes later, another young Japanese man, whom I'll call the Boss, phoned with details. He explained that each year the Osaka Junior Chamber of Commerce invites 10 foreigners between the ages of 25 and 40 to tour Japan for a week, meet the empress and em-peror and receive the coveted "TOYP" ward. TOYP stands for Ten Outstanding Young Persons, one of those naturally ironic concepts that could form without irony only in the hierarchic culture of Japan. The point of the award was to promote "world peace and harmony" right into the 21st century.

The Boss knew nothing of my credentials for the task except that I was a) American, and b) a friend of his friend. That was enough, since he was the head of the selection committee. To win, I had only to follow his instructions in filling out a form. The only firm requirement (aside from youth) was that the candidate never have set foot in Japan.

"But," I said, "I'm already in Japan."

"Can you leave?"

Three months later (having left and returned), I sat staring into the middle distance in the coffee shop of an Osaka hotel, wondering how I was going to survive the next week. I'd just seen our schedule. Before pressing the imperial flesh the 10 outstanding young people had to survive five days of meetings, speeches, conferences, discussion groups and more meetings. I offer one morning as a small illustration:

9:30 a.m.: Guidance for Pre-meeting at TOYP Osaka Conference

10 a.m.: Pre-meeting of TOYP Osaka Conference

11:30 a.m.: Meeting of TOYP Osaka Conference

1 p.m.: TOYP Osaka Conference Post-Meeting

As I pondered this cornucopia of activity, a young man approached, introduced himself as the German representative, and sat down. He pulled from his breast pocket a thick document filled with fine print. "Have you seen this?" he asked, shaking it violently. It was our schedule. I nodded again. My new friend said he had taken a few days off from his steel company in Dusseldorf because he liked the idea of a vacation in Japan. "But this isn't wacation," he said, inverting the 22nd and 23rd letters of our alphabet, "This is verk!"

And so it was. The first phone call the next morning came at 5:45, from an apologetic Japanese man who wished to inform me that the first meeting of the day had been moved to 8:45 a.m. from 9 a.m. Just as I had stopped wondering why he hadn't waited until dawn to announce this stunning fact, and was drifting back to sleep, he rang again to announce that the meeting had been moved back to 9 a.m. I thought it was a joke, until it happened the next day and the next. Every night, without fail, our busy hosts met late into the night to discuss the next day's events. Every night they shifted the first meeting forward. Every morning, they moved it back again.

By the time we reached that first morning meeting, most of the outstanding young people were spent. We -- two Americans, two Britons (one of whom was a Labor MP), one German, one Pole, one Czech, one Thai, one Spaniard and one Belgian -- sat jet-lagged and sleep-deprived around a long conference table. Surrounding us were about 25 members of the Osaka Junior Chamber wearing identical blue day-glo polyester sports jackets.

This first meeting began with a lesson from the Boss on how to behave in the presence of the emperor, whom we wouldn't be seeing for nearly a week. Once inside the palace we would form an arc and wait quietly for His Majesty. We would not speak to him until spoken to. We would not try to test his divinity by, say, asking him to cause a hailstorm or to fix a parking ticket (the Boss could be droll).

"The emperor when he talks to you comes right up close to your face," said the Boss. "You will be like a frog looking into the eyes of a snake" (the Boss could be melodramatic, too). The Boss then ran through the list of other people we would visit: the mayor of Osaka, a famous Japanese anthropologist, the managers of several well-known sites in Osaka and Kyoto, and Prime Minister Kaifu. At each stop one of us would be asked to make a speech of gratitude and present to our hosts the gifts we had brought from our homeland.

Problem. None of us had thought to bring gifts. After the meeting we conferred, then ran off to ransack our luggage. The German returned with a collection of beer steins, the Thai with some beads, the Pole (an economist) with a stack of literature about investing in Poland. As we were throwing into a pile various secondhand articles, I believe I heard the Labor MP say, "Here, give them this -- me mum gave it to me last Christmas," but perhaps I misheard. It was anyway the sort of thing he might have said.

Thus the pre-imperial leg of the tour began -- and the goal of world peace and harmony quickly gave way to a kind of forced march through Japanese culture. The Japanese anthropologist tried to persuade us that the Japanese economy was becoming more Western, that the regime of lifetime employment had collapsed, that the Japanese people had at last become true individuals. The next day a senior executive of Kobe Steel was offended when I asked if any of his 26,000 employees ever quit. "Never in history," he said, as he made his selection from our dwindling and increasingly soiled pile of gifts.

Time and again we found ourselves thrust before crowds of Japanese and asked to give our "impression of Japan." Most of us had only just arrived. On the third afternoon we were led into a hall full of people and seated along a table at the front, beside a local university professor who made a five-minute introductory talk, of which the only two words I understood were my first and last names. He finished and looked to the translator, who smiled and said, "Mr. Michael Lewis from America will now give us his views on the subject: What Japan should do in Eastern Europe."

Somewhere along about that third day, a question began to form in the minds of the group: What on earth were we doing here? As we stood one evening on a stage, facing a crowd of Japanese, the Spaniard whispered to me that the real reason was to provide the citizens of Osaka with inexpensive instruction in English. The German hissed back that, no, we'd been brought in to rant about Japanese trade practices. On we argued, as we each in turn moved to the podium to invent a speech.

No plausible explanation for our presence emerged until the final day. Our tour bus sped to the palace. Along the way our hosts began visibly to swell with honor. Several said that this was quite clearly the best day in their entire lives. In their entire lives. I had had a glimpse of Japanese emperor worship, when I surreptitiously cornered a 12-year-old girl and put to her a series of questions. Who, I asked, was her favorite film star? Michael J. Fox, she replied. Who would she rather meet: Michael J. Fox or Prime Minister Kaifu? Michael J. Fox, she giggled, as though the question were patently absurd. All right then: Michael J. Fox or the emperor? No contest: the emperor.

So there we were: Japanese and outstanding young people standing quietly in the receiving room of the palace. Everyone at once was trying unsuccessfully not to appear nervous, when an oleaginous man with long white teeth from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs entered to say that the emperor and empress would be with us shortly.

It was then that the jaundiced thought struck. It is far easier for an undeserving foreigner than for a deserving Japanese to gain an audience with the emperor. What better way to get into see His Majesty than to accompany 10 outstanding young persons from abroad? All of a sudden I admired the shrewdness of my hosts. In a way, we were in silent league together, as neither group could gain an audience with the emperor without the other.

Soon, the emperor and empress entered, nodded and began to greet the foreigners. They moved down our arch together, like the Duke and Duchess of Kent inspecting ball boys at Wimbledon. When they came to me, we spoke for five minutes about (what else?) world peace and harmony. The empress pretended to be amused by an invitation to spend her next holiday in my home and said, a little bitterly, that her movements were tightly controlled by the man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Then, having finished with the outstanding young people, the Imperial Couple proceeded to greet our hosts. Our hosts then proceeded to greet the Imperial Couple -- with expressions of pure peace and harmony. If only you could have seen their bows.

Michael Lewis is the author of "Liar's Poker."