A MONTH after his accession to the throne, Emperor Akihito is making plans to visit a few Asian nations, helping Japan to define a future for itself in a region that it ruled half a century ago.
The planned trips for 1991, most likely to South Korea and at least one Southeast Asian nation, would be the first time that a modern Japanese emperor has visited another Asian country, marking a symbolic breakthrough in Japan's relations with its neighbors.
The previous emperor, Hirohito, whose role in World War II and Japan's conquest of Asia has been a source of lingering resentment, was able to visit only Europe and the United States. He died in early 1989 after a 64-year reign. In 1986, when he was crown prince, Akihito had planned to visit South Korea, but the trip was canceled.
"I hope to perform the duties of the emperor in a manner appropriate to the present age, as symbol of the state and of the unity of the people provided for in the Constitution," he told Japanese journalists in a rare interview Dec. 23.
Akihito said he would like to promote understanding between Japan and other nations. When asked how, he stated: "I believe that hereafter, all the countries in the world should work, as members of the international community, to build a better world to live in for the sake of the well-being of mankind, through person-to-person exchange, as well as country-to-country contact." Foreign journalists were excluded from the press conference.
During his November accession ceremonies, Akihito performed controversial rites, such as communing with the Japanese sun-goddess and ascending to a throne above the people. In the past, such rites were used by the military to instill emperor worship among the Japanese and many overseas subjects. Asked if a repetition of these rites violated a postwar constitutional principle that sovereignty resides with the people, Akihito said such rites are ceremonial and have "historically existed since ancient times."
But when asked about another symbol of wartime imperial rule - the cheer of banzai that was yelled by Japanese officials after the accession in November - the emperor revealed his intention to break from the past. "Our generation has lived long enough in an age that has nothing to do with such a thing."
Relying on overseas trips by Akihito to improve ties with other countries will be difficult, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe, because such visits might violate a constitutional prohibition against the emperor playing a political role. But he said the government's No. 1 goal for 1991 is to improve relations with Asia.
A trip by the emperor to South Korea, which may come as early as February, depends on the success or failure of a visit to …