Each word seems to carry the burden of centuries. He weighs it heavily, considers it again, and reluctantly releases it to history.

This is the curse for Japanese Emperor Akihito, an ancient monarch in modern times. He must carry the vestiges of godliness and the lingering expectations of perfection into an age when he is a mortal, public figure. Where no one was allowed to view his grandfather's face and commoners did not hear his father's voice until 1945, now Emperor Akihito must answer the unblinking camera and submit to the tape recorder's tyranny.

So naturally a news conference is a strain.

But on the 10th anniversary--sort of--of this emperor's reign, Akihito, and his wife, Empress Machiko, held a news conference--sort of--to discuss their tenure.

Such duties by the imperial couple are hybrid productions, attempts to straddle the new realities of celebrity with the old traditions of respect. Thus, a news conference with the royal couple means only selected reporters are allowed in the room, the Imperial Household Agency has chosen the questions and the emperor already has formed his answers.

Such an awkward arrangement is symbolic of the emperor's uncertain role in modern Japan. After the death in 1989 of his father, Hirohito, the emperor during Japan's disastrous foray into World War II, Akihito has clung to the assigned postwar role of symbolic figurehead. So much so, in fact, that many Japanese pay little attention. Unlike the British monarchy, for example, which at least provides grist for titillation and gossip, the Japanese royal family is rarely seen, rarely heard and almost never controversial.

In his news conference, for example, Akihito concluded that "the wisdom of each and every Japanese and cooperation from international society will tide us over" through current troubles. Empress Michiko urged Japan to "maintain a peaceful and agreeable national character at home."

Just to make sure there were no hidden incendiaries, the Imperial Household embargoed all reports from today's news conference in order to prepare an official transcript for the reporters.

The emperor reminisced about his visit to unified Berlin six years ago. He called for awareness of the "global environment." He empathized with the unemployed and the victims of natural disasters.

The closest he came to raising anyone's eyebrow was in reply to a question about World War II. He noted the war cost many lives of combatants and noncombatants, and "the peace and prosperity we currently enjoy in Japan was built on the sacrifice of so many people."

There will be a parade Friday in honor of the anniversary, folk art performances and speeches by VIPs congratulating Akihito and Michiko, both 65, on their reign.

But there is hardly a grand sense of celebration here. The Japanese press has given the whole affair scant mention so far. And the past decade has been pretty gloomy in Japan; the country has tumbled from economic heights into an unrelenting recession and bouts of introspection.

Besides, it is not a real 10-year anniversary. Akihito became emperor upon the death of his father Jan. 7, 1989, almost 11 years ago; the official Japanese calendar is calculated from the start of each emperor's reign, and already is in Year 11.

But Akihito had to wait for the 1990 rice harvest to make a proper food offering to the Sun Goddess before his installation on Nov. 12, 1990. That, of course, was nine years ago, but such are the oddities of the imperial existence.

In fact, if anything about the emperor and his family interests the Japanese people, it is the oddities of their cloistered lives. They live in a palace in the heart of Tokyo, but very few people ever get inside.

They make a few public appearances each year and an occasional trip abroad, but are little quoted. The head of the government reports to them, but they do not offer opinions or advice.

There was a flurry of excitement six years ago when Crown Prince Naruhito married a U.S.-educated career woman, Masako Owada. Presumably there will be another stir if the couple produce an heir to the throne.

Akihito and Michiko met the press in a high-ceilinged, pink-carpeted room; he somber, she with a frozen smile. They sat for the questions, and replied with such deliberation, it seemed that each word hesitated before deciding to follow the previous one. They spoke from notes--the questions had been submitted a month in advance.

There was no levity, not even a smile or wave for the cameras. It took them nearly 45 minutes to answer four questions. They bowed, and wordlessly left.

Equally silent, the press bowed back.