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Hirohito Dies, Ending 62 Years as Japan's Ruler

January 08, 1989|Associated Press

TOKYO — 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

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