Japan mourns Empress Dowager


TOKYO, June 16 -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Friday that the Empress Dowager Nagako had lived through rapidly changing times as a good partner to the late Emperor Hirohito.

The Empress Dowager, widow of the Emperor Hirohito and mother of Emperor Akihito, died Friday. She was 97.


Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, along with several other members of Japan's royal family, were at the bedside of the empress dowager when she died. Doctors attributed her death to old age.

The Imperial Household Agency said the Nagako experienced problems breathing Wednesday and her breathing was being aided by an artificial respirator. Her condition worsened Thursday and by Friday doctors said her blood pressure was very low and her pulse feeble.

In a government statement, Mori expressed regret at her death and said his government offered its condolences to the people of Japan.


The Imperial Household Agency has set up a team, headed by Sadame Kamakura, the agency's spokesman, to decide on the memorial service. In pre-war Japan, both the empress dowager and the emperor were given the same service. That custom, however, has changed.

Government officials said her funeral would likely be held using the same customs as those for the previous Empress Dowager Tenmei who died in 1951. The funeral is likely to be after 40 days, they said.

The Imperial Household Agency quoted Emperor Akihito as saying that it was sad that his mother had passed away. He and his wife, Empress Michiko, will go into mourning for the empress dowager for 150 days, officials said.

The Japanese government has asked government offices to fly the flag half-staff to mark the empress dowager's death.

The Empress Dowager Nagako suffered a series of ailments in recent years, beginning with a broken vertebrae in 1997 and had been under medical care since that time. Although she was the first Japanese empress to travel overseas, Nagako made few public appearances since that accident.

The Empress Dowager Nagako was born in 1903 as the first daughter of the Prince and Field Marshal Kuniyoshi Kuninomiya. Nagako, whose marriage with Hirohito came as a shock to court circles, had seven children. Akihito, who was born in 1933, was her fifth child but first son and was designated the heir to the throne in 1952.


On Jan. 26, 1974, Hirohito and Nagako celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and were remembered as the longest reigning empress in Japanese history.

Nagako, the talkative and high-spirited daughter of an impoverished prince, married Crown Prince Hirohito in 1924, two years before he ascended to the 2,600-year-old Chrysanthemum Throne.

The aristocratic Kuninomiya family had fallen on hard times and the marriage was opposed by a powerful court faction. But the alliance turned out to be a happy one, often praised by Hirohito as a source of solace and contentment during his long reign.

The empress dowager was a talented amateur pianist who, according to officials of the Imperial Household Agency, spent long hours in her later years listening to Japanese and western classical music.

Another passion of the empress was Japanese painting, although she is said to have largely abandoned her lifelong hobby in recent years because of her back problem.

In 1971, Nagako became the first reigning Japanese empress to travel overseas. The royal couple stopped in Alaska en route to Western Europe for a brief meeting with then President and Mrs. Richard Nixon. They returned to tour the United States in 1975.

But most of her married life was spent behind the "chrysanthemum curtain" that shields members of the imperial family from public view.


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