The Empress Dowager, who died Friday afternoon aged 97, saw firsthand the sweeping changes that engulfed the Imperial system after World War II as the wife of Emperor Showa.
She was born March 6, 1903, the eldest daughter of Prince Kuni and Princess Chikako — the seventh daughter of Tadayoshi Shimazu, former daimyo of the powerful Satsuma domain, now Kagoshima Prefecture, in the Tokugawa period (1603-1867).
In January 1918 she was unofficially picked as the future bride for then Crown Prince Hirohito at the tender age of 14 while a student at Gakushuin Women’s Middle School. At that time, only daughters of Imperial family members could marry princes.
Five years of private tutoring in history, French, needlework and flower arrangement at the Kuni residence followed to prepare her for her role as empress.
On Jan. 26, 1924, the wedding ceremony of the Imperial Couple took place at the Imperial Palace. She was 20, while her husband, who had become prince regent in November 1921 because of his father’s illness, was 22.
She gave birth to four daughters — Princesses Shigeko, Sachiko, who died as an infant, Kazuko and Atsuko — before the long-awaited heir, the present Emperor, was born Dec. 23, 1933, nearly 10 years after the wedding.
Emperor Showa had abolished the tradition of emperors having concubines. His father, Emperor Taisho (1879-1926), was the son of a concubine.
However, some aides to Emperor Showa, after seeing his wife giving birth to only princesses, reportedly proposed to the Imperial Household Ministry that it reintroduce the practice.
Following the birth of an heir, Koichi Kido, then chief secretary to a high-ranking minister, wrote in his diary: “At last, the zealous hope of the citizens is fulfilled. The big problem is resolved. I am speechless with emotion, and cannot hold back my tears.”
The couple had another son, Prince Hitachi, in 1935 and another daughter, Princess Takako, in 1939.
In line with time-honored court rules, the children lived separately from their parents. Emperor Showa’s heir was moved to his own palace at the age of 3.
The Empress Dowager became empress at age 23 when her husband ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on Dec. 25, 1926. Under the prewar Constitution, the emperor was “sacred and inviolable.”
As air raids on the capital increased during the war, the Imperial offspring were evacuated to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, and other places.
In a letter to her evacuated children, she wrote: “The war has become fiercer. There are air raids almost every day. But please don’t worry, since we are fine. May you all make efforts to keep your spirits up despite these difficult times.”
On Jan. 1, 1946, four months after Japan’s surrender, Emperor Showa renounced his claim to divinity and declared himself human.
When he embarked on a tour across the war-ravaged country in February that year, his wife visited war orphans and bereaved families in Tokyo.
Imperial officials at the time said she wanted to accompany her husband to console citizens who had lost loved ones in the war but was dissuaded from doing so because food shortages and impaired transport and lodging facilities made it difficult to expand the entourage.
The 1947 Constitution describes the emperor as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”
The Empress Dowager was apparently among those who initially opposed the marriage of her son to a commoner instead of a member of one of the old aristocratic families.
According to a diary entry by an attendant of Emperor Showa on Oct. 11, 1958, shortly before Michiko Shoda was officially picked as the bride, she lamented in a chat with Princesses Chichibu and Takamatsu, her sisters-in-law, “something to the effect that it is outrageous” to choose a commoner.
She accompanied her husband on two trips abroad during an 18-day tour to seven European countries — Denmark, Belgium, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and West Germany — in the fall of 1971 and a 15-day trip to the United States four years later.
While in Belgium, a local newspaper described her smile as “angelic.”
Under the pseudonym “To-en,” or Peach Garden, she created a number of traditional Japanese-style paintings, specializing in still life and landscapes.
She presented a painting of grapes to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when she and Emperor Showa visited that country in 1971.
Two collections of her paintings have been published. As the Empress Dowager in her later years she also enjoyed cultivating roses in the palace garden and raising silkworms.
During her old age, she suffered from a weak heart and memory loss and was confined to a wheelchair.
After her husband died at age 87 on Jan. 7, 1989, she lived a reclusive life at the Fukiage Palace, attended by some 40 court ladies and medical experts.
In recent years, she had remained at the palace except for visits to the Imperial villa in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, once or twice a year.