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Palace politics: Royal audience stirs controversy

TOKYO - TOKYO (AP) — Critics are fuming over allegations that Japan's new government pressured the Imperial Palace into hastily arranging a meeting Tuesday between Emperor Akihito and China's Vice President Xi Jinping in order to curry favor with Beijing.

It is not unusual for Akihito to grant audiences to foreign dignitaries. The meetings, such as one recently held with President Barack Obama, are carefully orchestrated and planned well in advance to avoid hints of favoritism or the appearance of political undertones beyond the accepted status of the emperor as a ceremonial head of state.

But the government's last-minute decision to have Akihito meet Xi, a rising star in China's leadership, was seen by many as stepping over the line between politics and the palace in an attempt by the new administration to score a diplomatic coup with Beijing.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took office in September, has stressed that he intends to improve Tokyo's ties with China. Last week, a high-profile delegation of more than 100 lawmakers from Hatoyama's progressive Democratic Party met Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao in Beijing.

Hatoyama's political opponents say the imperial audience, which lasted about 20 minutes, was arranged to return the favor and that normal rules were bent to make it happen.

"I am very angry," former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a leading member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, said Monday. Abe noted that the emperor, who turns 76 this month, has reduced his official duties for health reasons, and said the meeting was an unnecessary burden on him.

"We can't allow the emperor to be used for political purposes," he said.

Other leaders of the opposition party, which is staunchly pro-U.S. and governed Japan for most of the postwar period, also used the meeting to slam Hatoyama's judgment.

"The relationship between politics and the palace is extremely delicate," said Liberal Democratic Party President Sadakazu Tanigaki. "We must be very careful to assure that the balance is protected."

Imperial Household Agency head Shingo Haketa told reporters in a news conference last week that Hatoyama pushed the palace to set up the meeting on short notice, although audiences with the emperor normally require a month's advance arrangements.

The palace initially refused, he said, but the government persisted and officials eventually relented.

"I really felt awkward," he was quoted as saying by several Japanese media. "I hope I never have to see this sort of thing repeated again."

Haketa said there was no convincing reason that the one-month rule had to be bent.

"The emperor's role is different from the diplomacy of a country," he reportedly said. "If you are asking for the emperor to play a role to deal with a pending issue between countries, that's not the emperor's expected role under the current constitution."

The government denied the meeting was anything more than a courtesy.

"China is the world's most populous country, and is a neighboring country," Hatoyama said. "Relations with such a nation are very important. This was not a decision for political use. Naturally, the health of the emperor is most important, but this request was made under the condition he was able to do so."

Since the end of World War II, Japan's emperor has had a tightly restricted role and is generally kept away from exerting political influence. A symbolic figurehead, he rarely speaks in public, does not set his own schedule and his infrequent foreign trips must be approved by the Cabinet.

The changes in Akihito's imperial role — imposed by the U.S.-led Allies after Japan's surrender ended the war in 1945 — have good reason.

Before and during World War II, Japan's emperors were often used as political pawns to rally the nation behind its colonial expansion across Asia. The late Emperor Hirohito, Akihito's father, was revered as a living god and Japan's troops died fighting in his name.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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