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Imperial Farewell : Japanese-Americans Join Thousands in Paying Respects to Hirohito by Signing Condolence Books

Times Staff Writer

Shigeru Shimizu, 98, approached the table slowly and with great difficulty. Standing before the emperor’s portrait, she placed her hands together and prayed, whispering a few words in Japanese until she could no longer contain her emotions and began to tremble and cry.

More than 1,000 people have repeated the brief but solemn ceremony at the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles since Monday, signing condolence books to pay their respects to the late Emperor Hirohito, who died Saturday of intestinal cancer at the age of 87.

Older Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were the majority of those visiting the consulate Wednesday. “When they were born in Japan, the emperor was a god,” explained Consul Mitsuhiro Saotome. "(His death) means a spiritual support is lost.”

‘We Had to Bow’

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Kiyoaki Fujiwara, a 62-year-old World War II veteran of the Japanese army, said he felt especially close to the emperor because he was born in 1926, the first year of the emperor’s 62-year reign. “When I was young, we couldn’t look at the emperor when he passed,” Fujiwara said. “We had to bow.”

Mourners entered the consulate library in Little Tokyo and bowed before a photograph of Hirohito that had two black bands across the frame. On either side of the photograph stood two flowerpots with large bouquets of white chrysanthemums, the symbol of Hirohito’s reign.

Many signed with the brush strokes of Japanese calligraphy, dipping their pens into a small inkwell. A felt-tip pen was provided for Westerners. Four of the cloth-bound condolence books--sent from Japan by the Imperial Palace--have been filled so far, Saotome said.

Among the non-Japanese mourners were representatives of U.S. companies with investments in Japan. “We have business relations with a firm in Japan,” said Michael Tenzer, chief executive officer of Leisure Technology, a Los Angeles housing construction firm. “Out of great respect for the Japanese people . . . we felt it was appropriate to express our condolences.”

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Books Signed Elsewhere

Condolence books were opened at all 14 Japanese consulates in the United States this week. About 3,000 people signed books at the consulate in New York and 900 at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Mourners came to Los Angeles to sign the books from as far away as Phoenix and Albuquerque, Saotome said.

A steady stream of diplomats and local dignitaries also came to the consulate Wednesday, including Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. “We want to let the members of the Japanese community know that the LAPD shares in their grief at this time,” Gates said.

‘This Is My Country’

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For most of the Japanese signing the books, the gesture was one of faith and gratitude.

“This is my country. I’m American, but my parents raised me Japanese,” said Masatomo Ohara, 73, who spent three years in an internment camp in California during World War II. “I feel sad that he passed away. I think the Japanese people still want him very much.”

Today will be the last day to sign the condolence books, Saotome said. The books will be returned to the Imperial Palace in Japan, where they will be stored “forever,” he said.


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