The Empress Dowager, the widow of Emperor Showa, died Friday afternoon, two days after she began experiencing breathing difficulties, the Imperial Household Agency said. She was 97.

The Empress Dowager died at 4:46 p.m. at Fukiage Palace within the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo, said Sadame Kamakura, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency. Her condition worsened shortly after 7 a.m.

The Emperor and Empress were with her at the time of her death. The Emperor had not slept since Thursday night and had kept vigil at his mother’s side, agency sources said.

Other Imperial family members, including Princess Nori, granddaughter of the Empress Dowager, the Crown Prince and Princess, as well as Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko, also came to be at her side.

Her two surviving daughters, Atsuko Ikeda and Takako Shimazu, who left the Imperial family after marrying members of the general public, also came to see her.

The government has begun discussing funeral plans.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who was campaigning for the upcoming general election in Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures, returned to Tokyo Friday night and consulted with Cabinet ministers before issuing a statement.

“I am overcome by grief at today’s news of the passing of the Empress Dowager. I can but only imagine the depths of sorrow felt by the Emperor and Empress, other members of the Imperial family and close relatives,” he said.

“The Empress Dowager spent most of her life serving as Empress with Emperor Showa and lived in a turbulent era,” he said in the statement.

“During this period of drastic change in society even in difficult times the Empress Dowager sincerely served as a good spouse to Emperor Showa. We, the people of Japan, were deeply impressed and greatly encouraged,” he said.

The Cabinet decided Friday evening that government agencies would observe a two-day period of mourning, characterized by:

* The national flag being hoisted at half-staff; * Where possible, refraining from holding official events that entail the use of music and other forms of entertainment; * Seeking the cooperation of other public offices, businesses and the public to follow suit.

A Shinto-style funeral for the Empress Dowager will be held in about six weeks, after the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa Prefecture slated for July 21 to 23, government sources said.

The ceremony is expected to take place at the Toshimaoka cemetery in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and is to be arranged by the agency’s funeral committee, which Grand Steward Kamakura heads.

The Empress Dowager will then be entombed at the Musashino Imperial Mausoleum in Hachioji in the western suburbs of Tokyo, where her husband is also interred.

The Empress Dowager will not officially be given a state funeral and burial, but expenses will be paid from the state coffers, with the approval of the Cabinet, the government sources said.

The government will notify foreign countries of the Empress Dowager’s death through Japanese embassies and consulates, government officials said.

The Empress Dowager had suffered a mild heart attack in December 1987. Prior to that, she broke some vertebrae after a fall in July 1977 while resting at the Imperial villa in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture.

She injured her thoracic vertebrae in 1980 while lying in bed at Fukiage Palace, forcing her to use a wheelchair.

Mori visited the Imperial Palace shortly before 9 a.m. to write a get-well message. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Home Affairs Minister Kosuke Hori followed suit.

The Empress Dowager was the oldest holder of the title since the eighth century, according to the agency. Reliable information about her earlier counterparts is not available.

She had not attended an official event since the 86th birthday celebration for Emperor Showa, on April 29, 1987, about 20 months before his death.

In recent years, she had remained at her Fukiage Palace residence, except for visits to the Imperial villa in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, once or twice a year. Her latest visit there was between May 16 and June 2.

She experienced turbulent years during and after World War II with Emperor Showa, who died Jan. 7, 1989, at the age of 87. His reign (1926-1989) is the longest in recorded Japanese history.

Japan’s defeat in the war and the subsequent occupation by the Allied forces brought tremendous changes to the country and the Imperial system.

Under the prewar Constitution, the emperor was “sacred and inviolable,” and sovereignty rested in him as the head of the Japanese Empire. In 1946, however, Emperor Showa declared himself to be human, denying his supposed divinity.

When Emperor Showa made the historic declaration, his wife wrote out the entire text and reportedly had their children recite it every morning.

Since the death of Emperor Showa, the Empress Dowager had been cared for by some 40 court ladies and medical experts at Fukiage Palace.

In recent years, the Emperor and Empress and Princess Nori visited the Empress Dowager almost every weekend.

She was born March 6, 1903, the eldest daughter of Prince Kuni and Princess Chikako, who was the seventh daughter of Tadayoshi Shimazu, the former feudal clan chief of Satsuma, currently Kagoshima Prefecture.

On Jan. 26, 1924, at age 20, she married then Prince Regent Hirohito. At 23, she became empress on Dec. 25, 1926, when her husband ascended the Imperial Throne at age 25, succeeding Emperor Taisho, who died at age 47.

She gave birth to the Emperor on Dec. 23, 1933, and Prince Hitachi on Nov. 28, 1935.

There were also five daughters.