President Bush arrived Thursday to attend the state funeral of Emperor Hirohito and plunged into a series of top-level meetings to explore possibilities for peace in the Middle East.

Bush began his first overseas trip by lunching with French President Francois Mitterrand, then he held talks with seven other foreign leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli President Chaim Herzog. He will hold more meetings after the funeral Friday.During a 40-minute meeting with Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita on the eve of the ceremony, Bush expressed the condolences of the American people over the death of Hirohito, who died on Jan. 7.

After Bush met with the three Middle East leaders at the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State James Baker said the United States is ready to play an active role in bringing about direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It's fair to say there was a recognition (on) the part of the three leaders that some opportunities exist with respect to the Middle East peace process which haven't existed before," Baker said.

He defended Bush, who has been under pressure to respond to a current Soviet initiative to seek support for an international Middle East peace conference. "We think it's very important to carefully till the ground and not to lose by acting precipitously," Baker said.

After lunch, Bush went to Akasaka Palace, where he met for 40 minutes with Takeshita. Receiving Bush in the ornate Asahi-no-ma Room, or the "Room of the Morning Sun," Takeshita thanked the president on "behalf of the government and the people" for coming for the ceremony.

The two men discussed East-West relations and the global environment but steered clear of such touchy issues as trade and a proposal for the co-production of the FSX fighter plane.

Bush met separately with Portuguese Prime Minister Mario Soares, Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan and Indian President Ramaswany Venkatariaman.

After the funeral Friday at the Shinjuku Gyoen in the heart of Tokyo, Bush will resume his series of meetings with heads of government, including Philippines President Corazon Aquino.

During a refueling stopover in Alaska Wednesday, Bush emphasized the importance of the Pacific Rim and said he hoped his five-day, three-nation trip would build on U.S. relations in the region.

Hirohito, the 62-year monarch of Japan was arch-enemy of the United States during World War II. More than 150 world leaders are expected to attend the funeral.

Speaking at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, about half-way through his 16-hour air journey from Washington to Tokyo, Bush said his decision to make the trip is "a measure of our respect for a valued ally and fellow democracy."

Bush acknowledged, too, that he decided to take advantage of the journey by adding stops in Beijing and Seoul, even though his new administration is still conducting a wide-ranging foreign policy review.

"We don't want to take our friends for granted," Bush said. "As we wrestle with the problems that we face . . . we don't ever want to forget our friends."