Emperor Hirohito turned 84 today, and people came over to help him celebrate. Eighty-two thousand of them, the police estimated.

Gates to the imperial palace grounds in the heart of Tokyo opened at 8:30. All day, visitors thronged through them, clutching paper flags, snapping pictures and marveling at the manicured order of the grounds.

Some were gray-haired and reverent. Others were students in T-shirts and jeans, looking for amusement on a warm day and wondering how the old man inside, now finishing the sixth decade of his reign, would look in the flesh.

It is an annual rite that endures even though millions of Japanese have come to view the emperor as an historical curiosity rather than a spiritual father.

Hirohito had a semi-divine status among the Japanese until 1946, when he publicly renounced it at the behest of the occupying Americans. Under the current constitution, he is a politically powerless symbol of the state.

The crowd roared in approval at 10:50 as Hirohito stepped into view on a second-floor palace balcony that is shielded by bulletproof glass. It was one of four appearances today. His two sons, Crown Prince Akihito and Prince Hitachi, and their wives followed him. Empress Nagako was ill and absent.

Thousands of little Japanese flags fluttered in unison. From here and there, shouts of "banzai" ("May you live 10,000 years") were heard.

The emperor stood expressionless, his usual visage on public occasions. But he waved faster and faster as the cheering gained momentum.

Hirohito, frail since childhood, is not known for fiery words. "Thank you for celebrating my birthday today," he said in his deep schoolmasterish voice. "I am happy that many people came. I wish all of you happiness." Then he turned and strode inside. The appearance lasted just three minutes.

Ryohei Maruyama, 68, a World War II veteran has come on every birthday for 10 years to view the man he describes as "ample hearted and always concerned about peace in the world."

"He is old now and so am I," said Maruyama, whose face lit up when the emperor appeared. "I don't know how many more years I'll be able to come."

Although young Japanese often describe the emperor as vital to the national essence, it is hard to find any who consider him relevant to their personal lives and ambitions.

"I don't think many Japanese particularly admire the emperor," said Teruyuki Uchihara, 18, a student. "Young people don't think he's some type of spiritual being, not the people around me."

A newspaper poll conducted several years ago found that only about half of all Japanese say they feel warmly toward the imperial family. Yet it is hard to find anyone who wants to abolish the system, despite the considerable cost and inconvenience of maintaining it.

The imperial household's budget is approved by the Diet, or national legislature, without delay each year. There is no political capital for the opposition, as there is in Britain, for instance, in suggesting that the palace and its occupants are an extravagance. The palace is almost never criticized in the press. Imperial excursions tie up whole sections of Tokyo as streets are blocked off and busloads of police deployed, but there are few citizen complaints.

There also seems to be no real resentment that the stunning palace grounds, the largest patch of green in a city notorious for its shortage of park space, are open to the public only twice a year. A day at New Year's is the other occasion.

This is probably due in part to the all but spotless public and private lives the emperor and his family lead. There is no Japanese version of Prince Andrew and Koo Stark.

Newspapers do like to speculate on imperial marriage plans and are now focusing on Prince Hiro, 25, grandson of the emperor and second in succession.

The public is now showing special interest in the pomp and circumstance of the institution. More than 100 books are currently in print, with some Tokyo bookstores devoting special sections to the subject.

Still, the institution is not immune to criticism. An opposition member of the Diet's upper house criticized current laws that specify that a man must reign. Japanese history has seen eight women in the job.

Japan's antismoking lobby is campaigning for an end to the palace's custom of sending cigarettes as a token of appreciation for various services performed.

In an interview with Japanese journalists before his birthday, the emperor said his endurance on the throne was due to modern comforts. He already has the longest reign in a line of 124.

Hirohito also chose to talk, for the first time officially, about a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 6, 1941, in which preparations were laid for war with the United States. At the meeting, the emperor read a cryptic poem on the virtues of peace, a point that friendly historians have raised as proof that he opposed ultra-nationalists who were clamoring for war.

"The first item on the agenda was preparation for war. The second was efforts for peace," the emperor told the reporters. "I wished that efforts for peace should come first."