Hirohito Dies, Ending 62 Years as Japan’s Ruler

Associated Press

Emperor Hirohito, who held divine status until Japan’s defeat in World War II and endured to reign for 62 years, died Saturday of intestinal cancer, the government’s chief spokesman announced. He was 87.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kenzo Obuchi said the emperor died at 6:33 a.m. (1:33 p.m. PST).

Shoichi Fujimori, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, told a nationally televised news conference that Hirohito died of cancer of the upper duodenum.


The frail monarch, who urged his country to surrender at the close of World War II, had undergone intestinal bypass surgery in September, 1987. At the time, his doctors said a growth blocking his intestine was not cancerous.

On Sept. 19, 1988, the emperor vomited blood and remained in serious condition after that with internal bleeding. But until the death announcement, the household agency refused to confirm local news reports that he had cancer. Japanese custom is not to let cancer patients know they have the disease.

Kyodo News Service said Crown Prince Akihito, 55, the emperor’s oldest son, immediately ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The news service said Akihito was taking over three sacred imperial treasures that symbolize the throne and that have been handed down through generations of emperors.

The Cabinet was to meet Saturday morning to decide a name for the new emperor’s reign, television news reports said.

Hirohito’s reign was known as Showa, and year Showa 64 on the Japanese calendar had begun on Jan. 1.

Akihito, his wife, Crown Princess Michiko, 54, and other members of the imperial family had arrived at the palace at 5:40 a.m. (12:40 p.m. PST), soon after chief court physician Akira Takagi rushed in to attend Hirohito.

Oldest Imperial Line

The world’s oldest imperial line--held by the same family since at least the 8th Century and by legend since 660 BC--passed automatically to Akihito.

The regalia he was to receive, consisting of a sword, jewels and a mirror, were said in legend to have been handed down from the sun goddess, the imperial family’s mythic ancestor.

Hirohito’s funeral, likely to be held in about six weeks, will be a massive event to mark the figurative and literal turning of an era, since years in Japan are numbered from the start of his reign in 1926.

Akihito’s formal coronation will take place in about two years if his father’s pattern is followed. But the pattern is so old--Hirohito reigned for 62 years and 13 days--and Japan is so different now that precedent might not be followed.

Under Pressure

Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s government will be under pressure to handle the passage correctly, to honor Hirohito properly without giving too much encouragement to those who want to restore the prewar imperial aura of divinity.

Hirohito’s reign covered almost half the turbulent times of forced modernization, repeated warfare and a vigorous rise from the radioactive ashes of World War II that together have made Japan a formidable world force since it was pried out of its island isolation in the 1850s.

With no direct political power, Hirohito is known to have made only one major decision of state: to tell his generals and ministers, who were deadlocked on the Allies’ surrender demand even as Japan reeled from two atomic bombs, that the people had suffered enough.

It was a decision of immense danger to Hirohito’s own status. The Allies wanted unconditional surrender, with no guarantee that Japan could continue the imperial system. Hirohito could have faced prosecution for war crimes.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose troops put Japan under the first foreign occupation in its history, chose not to prosecute Hirohito, but instead to make him a symbol of a new, more egalitarian Japan that MacArthur intended to create.

‘Son of Heaven’

Japanese had been taught to revere the emperor as a “son of heaven” and to cast their eyes down when he emerged from the palace and passed in public. The first time they heard his voice was on Aug. 15, 1945, when he broadcast the acceptance of the Allied surrender demands, saying that it was a time for “suffering the insufferable, bearing the unbearable.”

On Jan. 1, 1946, he went on the radio again and renounced the concept of imperial divinity. Soon he began traveling around the devastated country, setting a pattern of contact with ordinary mortals that, in the view of many analysts, both saved the imperial system from the dustbin of history and uplifted the morale of a people who suffered 3.1 million dead in the war.

Again, Hirohito was playing someone else’s tune. The militarists had set him in uniform on a white charger and exhorted millions to die for him.

MacArthur sent him out in a gray suit, and he became known for his shy encounters with the common folk.

The postwar constitution, largely imposed by MacArthur, severely limited the emperor’s official role to rubber-stamping government decisions and being “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”

Gentle Old Man

Over the years, Japan became a near-pacifist nation and an economic powerhouse. Hirohito, meanwhile, became a stooped and gentle old man who put on rubber boots to tend a symbolic rice paddy and occasionally wore a Mickey Mouse watch.

But to the end he faced questions on his wartime role, fueled by the minority of historians who thought he was more than a figurehead, since he was the nominal commander in chief and approved major military orders.

Asked at a 1971 news conference to explain how he had the power in 1945 to end the war, he said it had been left up to him by Kantaro Suzuki, then prime minister. “So I had to make a decision, but that decision was taken at the responsibility of Prime Minister Suzuki. That was my interpretation,” he said.

In public, Hirohito often expressed sorrow for wartime casualties but never said he had opposed the war.

The Japanese, however, do not spend much effort on debating culpability for the war. Polls show that they are happy with today’s imperial system.

Hundreds Pray

As Hirohito lay in his bedroom in his last illness, hundreds of thousands of people came to pray outside the moated palace.

“I wish I could die instead and let the emperor live,” said Chigamatsu Morita, an 80-year-old sushi chef. “For people my age, he was the reason for living.”

Hirohito was born April 29, 1901, first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, who became the Emperor Taisho in 1912 upon the death of the Meiji emperor. Hirohito, called Prince Michi as a boy, was taken from his parents and raised by nurses and chamberlains to become emperor.

After an eye-opening trip to Europe when he was 20, Hirohito became prince regent in 1921 after his father became mentally incapacitated, and then emperor on Dec. 25, 1926, when his father died.

Hirohito married Princess Nagako on Jan. 26, 1924, and stood by her when she bore four daughters in a row and court officials were urging him to take a concubine and try for a son. Nagako gave birth to Akihito on Dec. 23, 1933, and then a second son and a fifth daughter followed.

Two daughters have died.

Other Survivors

In addition to the new emperor, Akihito, survivors include Empress Nagako, 85; brother Prince Mikasa, 73; daughters Kazuko Takatsukasa, 59, Atsuko Ikeda, 57, and Takako Shimazu, 49, and son Prince Hitachi, 53.

Among the nine grandchildren is the new crown prince, known as Hiro but formally named Naruhito, a 28-year-old bachelor.

Hirohito in 1972 surpassed the record for a long-reigning Japanese emperor set by his grandfather, the Meiji emperor, whose tenure was 45 years.

In 1982, Hirohito became the oldest living monarch in the world when King Sobhuza of Swaziland died at age 83.