Akihito, who becomes Japan's first emperor to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne as a human and not a living god, has quietly transformed the cloistered monarchy into a popular symbol of the people.

The gray-haired Akihito has waited 55 years to take up the imperial mantle. A gracious, self-effacing man schooled among commoners, he has spent those years maturing with his country.As Hirohito lay dying, the prince assumed the full roster of the emperor's official duties on Sept. 22.

The prince's daily shuttles from his residence near the forested imperial compound to Hirohito's deathbed drew swarms of photographers. Whether in predawn darkness or afternoon drizzle, Akihito's face showed the same stoic deference to the ailing monarch, and court physicians listening outside the imperial chamber reported quiet conversations between father and son.

Akihito took on the imperial duties once before as Hirohito recuperated from intestinal bypass surgery in September 1987. He retained a few responsibilities but returned most after the emperor's recovery. Those duties include affixing the imperial seal to government laws and appointments, opening sessions of parliament and receiving foreign ambassadors.

To these the prince has added frequent visits to factory openings, festivals and various observances across Japan. And with numerous trips abroad as his father's proxy, he has almost single-handedly brought Japan's monarchy into the global age and the eye of a curious public.

"I want to be a man with a strong moral backbone with keen, reliable insight and knowledge," he once reportedly told a friend. "I want to shake up the imperial protocol system."

Akihito set his most spectacular imperial precedent with his marriage in 1959 to a commoner. Mi-chiko Shoda was the beautiful, cultured daughter of a wealthy miller, and the young prince courted her by phone in a widely reported romance that was conservative but refreshingly typical.

The match shocked the imperial retinue and thrilled the public. Hirohito gave his consent, and the couple married after a cavalcade that drew 500,000 gawking subjects onto the streets of Tokyo.

Akihito and his princess produced three children: Prince Hiro, who at 28 is next in the imperial succession; Prince Aya, 22; and 19-year-old Princess Nori. They broke another imperial tradition with their decision to raise the children by themselves.

Born Dec. 23, 1933, as a militaristic Japan geared for growing confrontation in Asia and the Pacific, Akihito was shuttled among the imperial family's countryside villas when American planes began firebombing Tokyo in the closing months of the war. He was still short of his 12th birthday when his father's armies were crushed and the nation suffered the ultimate defeat in 1945.

At the urging of U.S. occupation officials, Hirohito also surrendered the divinity that had been the birthright of every Japanese monarch, and agreed to a new constitutional role as "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people."