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.