Japan's prime minister is under fire over allegations that he injected politics into the imperial palace by using his clout to arrange a last-minute audience between Emperor Akihito and China's vice president.
The furor over the 20-minute meet-and-greet Tuesday touches on an emotion-laden post-World War II taboo barring the emperor _ who since 1945 has been a ceremonial head of state _ from wielding political power or being used by politicians for their own partisan goals.
The critics are fuming over allegations that Japan's new government bent normal rules requiring a month's notice for imperial audiences and pressured the palace into hastily arranging the meeting between Akihito and China's Vice President Xi Jinping, a rising star in China's leadership, to curry favor 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, more than 100 lawmakers from Hatoyama's progressive Democratic Party met Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao in the Chinese capital.
Hatoyama's political opponents say that the imperial audience was arranged to return the favor.
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 _ 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.
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. The uproar in some quarters in the United States over Obama's low bow underscore that the scrutiny otherwise innocuous imperial audiences can invite.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said Beijing was pleased by the trip.
"The Japanese side made very considerate arrangements for the visit," she said. "We attach great importance to that."
But the government's last-minute decision to have Akihito meet Xi was seen by many as crossing the line in an attempt by the new administration to score a diplomatic coup.
"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.
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."
Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, said that the division between the palace and politics is a subtle one and that he did not believe the emperor's activities can be free from having political connotations.
"Even if it is a diplomatic courtesy, the decision on with whom he meets is a political message by its nature," Nakano said. "If he is to completely avoid politics, he would have to confine himself behind the moat."
AP writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.