From the archives: Japan’s Hirohito, 87, Dies After a Reign of 62 Years

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

TOKYO -- Emperor Hirohito’s 110-day struggle for survival ended today. The monarch who reigned for 62 years as Japan turned to authoritarianism and war, then collapsed in defeat and rose again in freedom and unprecedented prosperity, died of complications from intestinal cancer, the Imperial Household Agency announced. He was 87.

Hirohito had been confined to bed since he vomited blood Sept. 19. A team of doctors and nurses on a round-the-clock vigil sustained him by intravenous feeding and nearly daily blood transfusions as he suffered internal bleeding, jaundice and anemia. By Friday, the emperor had received more than 67 pints of blood and was suffering from kidney failure.

In September, 1987, he had undergone the first operation ever performed on a Japanese monarch when doctors removed what they called an obstruction in his digestive tract. It was then, Japanese media reported, that doctors discovered he had cancer. The secretive Imperial Household Agency, however, had refused to confirm, until today, that Hirohito suffered from cancer of the duodenum, the section of small intestine just below the stomach.


A nation that for years had paid little attention to him in health was transformed overnight into an obsession of mourning in his illness. State visits, festivals, receptions, and countless events smacking of celebration were canceled after he fell ill.

Japanese television networks began somber news broadcasts soon after the announcement was made that Hirohito had died at 6:33 a.m. (1:33 p.m. Friday PST), replacing regular programming with detailed coverage of his death and the ascension of his son, Crown Prince Akihito, 55, to the throne.

Akihito received a sacred sword and jewel, two of the three items of imperial regalia that are the symbols of his authority, along with imperial and national seals in a brief ceremony this morning.

Officials announced that there will be a six-day period of “self-restraint” in government offices, which are to remain open, and recommended that the public observe a two-day period of mourning. A state funeral expected to draw leaders from around the globe will be held in 40 to 50 days at a Tokyo park.

Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita said in a nationally televised address that Hirohito had ruled over an “eventful and turbulent” period of Japanese history, but that throughout, “the late emperor ardently wished for world peace and the well-being of the people, and devoted himself to these ideals.”

Hirohito was the last of the heads of state of World War II. His death ended the longest reign in Japan’s recorded history.

Once considered a god and “father” of his nation, nominally an absolute ruler and commander of 8.2 million imperial troops, Hirohito was transformed overnight by Japan’s World War II defeat into a “human emperor,” a mere “symbol of the unity of the Japanese people” and a servant of “international good will.”

Eventually Chief of State

Although Japan’s post-World War II constitution gave him only the ceremonial role of attesting to acts of government, the nation’s conservative political leaders gradually assigned to him the position of chief of state.

But throughout it all, his influence in government and his thoughts on a lifetime covering the entire span of Japan’s modern history remained largely a mystery.

His last official appearance, however, seemed to say more than the words he was given to speak. That came Aug. 15 in a ceremony commemorating the end of World War II.

“Even now, my heart still aches,” said a visibly frail and unsteady emperor, speaking toward an altar of 25,000 white and yellow chrysanthemums in honor of the war dead. “When I reflect upon the past, I am overcome with emotion.”

He had spoken similar words before. But on this occasion, 11 months after he underwent intestinal bypass surgery, it required a major effort for him to attend the ceremony.

Opening Up Japan

Hirohito was born 11 years before the death of his grandfather, the Emperor Meiji, whose nominal restoration to full authority brought Japan out of three centuries of rule under shogun warriors and deliberate isolation from the rest of the world. He saw his nation go into alliance first with Britain, then with Germany and ultimately with the United States. He sat on the throne as Japan experimented with democracy, abandoned it for authoritarian government by military leaders and then became a nation that tolerated one of the broadest spectrums of political thought anywhere.

Yet never did he fully express his feelings on the whirlpool of events surrounding him.

Raised in Spartan loneliness as a child, engaged at 17 to a 15-year-old princess he had seen only once and isolated from his people for the first 45 years of his life, Hirohito once said his existence was like that “of a bird in a cage.”

A partial postwar opening of the “chrysanthemum curtain” in which the Imperial Household Agency had enveloped him never went far enough to resolve controversies that Hirohito finally took with him to the grave.

It was in his name that war was declared upon the United States and Britain when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and it was in his name that soldiers and sailors of the imperial armed forces pledged to fight to the death--a pledge that led many to suicide or hiding in jungles for as long as 30 years after the war.

Surrender in His Name

It was also in his name--and by his order--that the Japanese accepted unconditional surrender in 1945.

And it was again in his name that Japan launched such inspired attempts to promote international friendship as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 World Exposition at Osaka.

Americans who came to hate the name “Hirohito” during World War II learned gradually that neither he, nor any of the 123 rulers (including mythological ones) who preceded him, had really exercised the power ascribed to them.

By 1971, when Hirohito became the first reigning emperor to leave Japan, American sentiment toward him had warmed to the point that President Richard M. Nixon flew from Washington to Anchorage, Alaska, to greet the emperor and Empress Nagako as their plane landed for refueling on a trip over the North Pole to Europe.

Nixon later invited Hirohito to pay a formal visit to the United States, but the President’s troubles with Watergate induced imperial household officials to resist accepting the invitation. Only after President Gerald R. Ford, in 1974, became the first incumbent American head of state to visit Japan did Hirohito accept a renewed invitation.

Greeted by Mickey Mouse

His American trip was a symbol of the importance and high esteem in which Japan had come to hold the United States. It also became a symbol of just how far Hirohito had moved from the sacrosanct position he held until 1945. He hobnobbed with Hollywood movie stars at banquets, was greeted by Mickey Mouse at Disneyland and, most astonishing to the Japanese back home, shook hands with all the Americans he met. In Japan, most of his public appearances were formal, staid affairs.

At a banquet in Washington, Hirohito, as translated into English, referred to “the most unfortunate war” between the two countries, “which I deeply deplore.” The phraseology in Japanese actually meant ". . . the war I remember with deep sadness.”

However, never once during his life did he choose to offer--or was he permitted by imperial household officials to offer--an overt apology for the war.

A frail man who in old age suffered from nearsightedness, which hampered him in walking, Hirohito often could not keep his head and hands from shaking. He seldom smiled or showed emotion.

He was taken from his mother when he was 70 days old, trained in humility by a vice admiral and noblemen in the Imperial Household Agency and taught by retired generals how to bear suffering in quiet. He appeared to make those traits part of himself.

Courage, Sense of History

But the often uninspiring appearance of stiff ceremony that he presented on public occasions belied an inspiring degree of courage and an astonishing sense of history, according to many who met him in more private circumstances.

Hirohito appeared from time to time to rise above those around him to show that he, least of all, needed the protection showered upon him.

Although die-hard military rulers refused to the last to accept a World War II surrender that would not guarantee the emperor’s status and his safety, Hirohito himself rose above such fears.

When an Imperial Council of military officials and government leaders was called after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs, two meetings failed to produce a decision. Hirohito himself had to make it--and he chose surrender without assurances for his own safety.

He also made a recording for broadcast over Japanese radio on Aug. 15, 1945--the first time his people had ever heard his voice.

With words that Japanese even today have not forgotten, he declared the war at an end:

“It is according to the dictate of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering the insufferable.”

‘Suffer the Insufferable’

Forty-two days later, Hirohito himself was called upon to “suffer the insufferable.”

With no decision announced publicly as to his own fate in impending war crimes trials and with Japanese Communists staging anti-imperial demonstrations in Tokyo, Hirohito had expected Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the American occupation of Japan, to summon him for a meeting. But the general chose to wait until the emperor’s staff asked for the meeting.

To Japanese officials, it was more of a confrontation than a meeting. And, most humiliating of all, it was the first time an emperor of Japan had ever paid a call on someone else. It came about at the U.S. Embassy on Sept. 27, 1945.

MacArthur said that he treated the emperor with respect, but the general chose to dress only in an open- neck khaki uniform while Hirohito wore a cutaway, striped trousers and top hat. A published photograph showing the two side by side was well calculated to show the Japanese who was boss--and leaders of Japan reacted to it with a sense of shock and shame.

MacArthur’s Version

The only record available of what transpired was composed by MacArthur himself, who wrote:

“He was nervous, and the stress of the past months showed plainly. I dismissed everyone but his own interpreter, and we sat down before an open fire at one end of the long reception hall. I offered him an American cigarette. . . which he took with thanks. I noticed how his hands shook as I lighted it for him. I tried to make it as easy for him as I could, but I knew how deep and dreadful must be his agony of humiliation. I had an uneasy feeling he might plead his own cause against indictment as a war criminal. . . .

“But my fears were groundless. What he said was this: ‘I come to you, General MacArthur, to offer myself to the judgment of the powers you represent as the one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war.’

“A tremendous impression swept me. The courageous assumption of a responsibility implicit with death, a responsibility clearly belied by facts of which I was fully aware, moved me to the marrow of my bones.

‘First Gentleman of Japan’

“He was an emperor by inherent birth, but in that instant, I knew I faced the First Gentleman of Japan in his own right.”

Years later, at the first-ever “audience” for foreign correspondents in 1971, Hirohito had much the same effect on those who met him. To one of the spontaneous questions, the emperor, without hesitation, swept back over 35 years to recall what were, in his words, the only two times he had ever intervened in government.

One of those times was a 1936 coup attempt staged by young army officers in which, he said, he had to intervene to order vacillating army commanders to subdue the rebels because “leaders of the government were missing.”

The other was the surrender decision in August, 1945, which he said Japan’s prime minister entrusted to him.

The extent of his influence, if not power, in government was never clarified.

After the war, a slow process of “democratization” of the emperor began.

No Godlike Powers

On Jan. 1, 1946, at the behest of American occupation authorities, Hirohito declared publicly that he possessed none of the “godlike” powers attributed to him by Japan’s military leaders. In 1947, a new constitution ended the fiction of the emperor’s supreme authority and denied postwar politicians the opportunity to use his name as authority for their own policies and desires.

For two years, from 1946 to 1948, Hirohito traveled 20,500 miles throughout the nation visiting farms, factories, schools, hospitals and refugee centers and trying to encourage the people to rebuild their devastated nation. It was the first time he had ever gone out among the people--and on more than one occasion, he was mobbed by joyous crowds.

Nearing 50 years of age, he attended a baseball game for the first time. He went to a sumo wrestling match for the first time. He rode in an airplane for the first time. He boarded a scheduled train (instead of a special train for himself only) for the first time. He visited a department store for the first time.

Student of Marine Biology

The Imperial Household Agency started allowing press conferences with Japanese newsmen, but all questions had to be submitted in advance. The agency also permitted publication of scientific works by Hirohito, a devoted student of marine biology. Japanese officials said he was the world’s leading authority on hydrozoans (invertebrate marine animals).

Before the war, even passengers on passing trolleys were obliged to bow toward the Imperial Palace. People in upper stories of buildings had to draw shades as his car passed by on the street below. Few Japanese had ever seen their emperor in person and viewed him only in official photographs, such as one of him riding a white horse in military uniform.

Nor had they heard his voice--and when they heard it for the first time in the surrender broadcast, many could not understand what he was saying. Hirohito’s court language at that time was different from everyday speech.

But with the advent of television, the emperor’s bent figure, his sleepy looking eyes and his hesitant footsteps became familiar. Unlike members of the British Royal Family, however, Hirohito was seldom the object of gossip, and officials who met him said little about what he was like as a person.

Imperial Consideration

Naraichi Fujiyama, a diplomat who once served as interpreter for Hirohito, recalls one occasion when the emperor’s consideration spared him embarrassment. A foreign guest had asked what kinds of birds were found in the Imperial Palace grounds. First ascertaining in a whisper that Fujiyama could not translate birds’ names, Hirohito turned back to the guest and replied diplomatically: “All kinds of birds.”

In 1964, Parliament passed a law enabling the crown prince to act on behalf of the emperor to perform state duties. That opened the door to the possibility of a reigning emperor going abroad--and Hirohito performed that “first,” too.

The trip came in 1971, 50 years after Hirohito had become the first crown prince of Japan ever to leave the country, and allowed him to retrace many of the steps he had taken on an earlier trip to Europe. Empress Nagako went with him, making her first trip abroad.

It was, undoubtedly, a sentimental journey. Ten years earlier, on his 60th birthday, Hirohito had been asked what had been the happiest moments of his life. He named the 1921 trip.

“Until my trip to Europe, I lived a life like that of a bird in a cage, but the experience I had with freedom on that trip served me greatly in the formation of my character as a person,” he told Japanese reporters.

12,000-Ton Battleship

That memorable experience began March 3, 1921, when Hirohito boarded a 12,000-ton battleship. He spent six months in five European countries--Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.

For the one and only time in his life, he managed to sneak a ride on a subway in Paris. Years later, he confessed that he had never turned in the ticket and still kept it “carefully in a drawer of my desk.”

He also acquired a liking for Western-style breakfasts on the trip.

Two months after he returned to Japan, Hirohito was called upon to become prince regent to perform the official functions of his father, the Emperor Taisho, who had gone insane.

The young Hirohito was given no more freedom in the selection of a wife than he had enjoyed in his upbringing as a child. Chosen for him because of her family links to an old feudal clan was Princess Nagako Kuni. They met unofficially once before their betrothal, again three weeks later for the betrothal itself, and then only nine times, never alone, in the seven years that would pass before their marriage.

Hirohito was receiving instructions in 16 subjects, each taught by Japan’s top scholars in the field, in preparation to become emperor. Nagako was taken out of Peer’s School and similarly given instruction from 17 different tutors in preparation to become empress.

Wedding Date Postponed

A date for his wedding to Nagako was finally set in 1923, but the great Kanto earthquake, which killed more than 140,000 people and devastated Tokyo, forced the ceremony to be postponed until Jan. 26, 1924.

His father died on Christmas Day, 1926, and Hirohito, then only 25, assumed the throne (with an investiture ceremony two years later) to begin what was to be the longest reign in Japan’s recorded history.

It was given the name of “Showa,” or the reign of enlightened peace--and will now become Hirohito’s posthumous name.

His marriage to Nagako also was to become a memorable one, as the couple lived to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 1974 and their diamond wedding anniversary in 1984.

With the nation--particularly the political and military leaders--hoping for a boy, Nagako gave birth to her first child in 1925. But it was a girl, Princess Teru. Expectations rose again when the second child was born in 1927, but again it was a girl, Princess Hisa.

As the third and fourth girls, Princesses Taka and Yori, were born in 1929 and 1931, disappointment in political and court circles turned to despair. The emperor was advised to take a concubine, as had many of his predecessors. Hirohito, however, refused, declaring that he did not wish to “disrupt the sanctity of marriage.”

Celebration Over Son

When the first son, Crown Prince Akihito, was born Dec. 23, 1933, the nation exploded with celebration. Rising Sun flags filled the grounds in front of the Imperial Palace as thousands of people came to pay their respects, shout “Long Live the Emperor!” and sing the national anthem.

For good measure, Nagako gave birth to another son, Prince Hitachi, in 1935, and still another daughter, Princess Suga, in 1939. The first daughter, Princess Teru, died in 1961, and the second daughter, Princess Hisa, died at 6 months. Five of the children are still alive. At his death, the emperor had 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Never Seen as Ordinary

Although his meeting with Gen. MacArthur stripped him of his godlike stature, Hirohito was never treated by the nation’s postwar leaders as an ordinary human being. The sacrosanct aura remained and such questions as what the people thought of him--and the imperial system itself--went largely unanswered.

Over the years, average Japanese came to pay less attention to him. No longer was his photograph hung above family altars in homes. Some young people even ridiculed him by calling him “Ten-chan” (“Ten” from “Tenno,” or emperor, and “Chan” being the appellation used in calling the name of a child).

But the vast majority of Japanese appeared to hold Hirohito in high esteem and reverence. Perhaps even a kind of love was involved. Certainly, there was much respect for Hirohito as a man--even more than an emperor.

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