Empress Kōjun: Remembering the Life and Final Days of Japan’s Last Shōwa Royal
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In June 2000, Empress Kōjun, the wife of Emperor Hirohito (1901–89), passed away peacefully at the age of 97, bringing to a close a long chapter of Japanese history. A symbol of the Shōwa era, she is remembered by many older Japanese as a dutiful wife and smiling mother-like figure who reigned quietly alongside her husband, spending most of that time out of the public eye.
A Royal Life
The empress was born Princess Nagako in 1903 (the title Kōjun was given posthumously), the third child and oldest daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni, an army officer and member of a collateral line of the imperial family. She received a traditional education and was still only a schoolgirl when Hirohito chose her from among a group of young aristocratic women to be his bride. The couple were betrothed in 1920, but some rival members of the imperial family were displeased with the future emperor’s choice of marriage partner (there were rumors of colorblind relatives). The most notable detractor was Prince Yamagata Aritomo, who as prime minister worked behind the scenes to undo the engagement.
There were other challenges as well. In 1923, the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated Tokyo and surrounding areas, causing the wedding to be postponed, and Nanba Daisuke, a young leftist activist and son of a Diet member, attempted to assassinate Hirohito in what is known as the Toranomon Incident. The pair withstood these travails and married in 1924. Their tenure as crown prince and princess lasted only a few years, though. In December 1926, they ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne following the death of Emperor Taishō.
In the first decade of marriage the imperial couple were blessed with four children, all daughters. However, there was immense pressure on the empress to produce a male heir. Desperate court officials called for a relaunch of the custom of royal concubines, but the emperor had no interest in this tradition and remained dedicated to his bride. The issue was resolved when their son Akihito was born in 1933. Before the age of radio and television, the news went out around the country by sirens in towns and cities being let off twice to signify the birth of an imperial baby boy.
The empress would have two more children, a boy and a girl, bringing the royal offspring to seven in total. Emperor Emeritus Akihito and his younger brother Prince Hitachi, older sister Ikeda Atsuko (Princess Yori), and younger sister Shimazu Takako (Princess Suga) are the only siblings still living.
During the tumultuous years of World War II, the emperor and empress lived for a time in the Obunko imperial air-raid shelter built in the Fukiage Gardens on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The facility was linked by a corridor to an annex containing a large conference room where the emperor met with his ministers and where some of the most important decisions of the war were made, including those that led to Japan’s surrender. While living in the bunker, the empress is said to have joined the food production effort by helping to grow vegetables and raise poultry on the grounds.
The role of emperor and empress changed dramatically in the postwar period. Renouncing his status as a “living god,” Hirohito tried to forge a more public persona as he carried out his duties as a symbol of the state. The Empress Kōjun remained largely in the wings, but accompanied her husband at ceremonies and official functions as well as on several overseas trips, events that were closely followed by the Japanese press. Stories would emerge of internal tensions in the royal family, including the empress’s alleged disapproval of Crown Prince Akihito’s bride Shōda Michiko, who was the first commoner to join the imperial household. On the whole, though, the populace held the empress in high regard, viewing her as a smiling, benevolent figure.
As she aged, Empress Kōjun all but disappeared from the public eye. In the 1980s she became confined to a wheelchair after injuring herself in a fall and seldom ventured outside the walls of the Imperial Palace. There were also rumors that she was suffering from dementia. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, she did not join the mourning family at the funeral rites. Becoming empress dowager following the accession of Akihito to the throne, she spent the last years of her life being cared for.
An Unexpected Phone Call
In June 2000 I was covering the Imperial Household Agency beat and had recently returned from accompanying Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on a four-country trip through Europe. Along with my reporting duties, I was busy in my role as coordinator of the press club, and it was nice to return to less hectic schedule.
I remember slipping out of the Imperial Palace grounds with colleagues on the afternoon of June 15 to grab a bite of lunch when I received a message saying that the IHA director-general had something he wanted to discuss with me. As he was our top contact at the agency, I sensed that it was no regular matter and raced over with a reporter from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
The mood was friendly as we recalled the events during the previous month’s royal European excursion, but after several minutes of light-hearted banter the director-general became serious. Speaking in a muted tone, he explained that he had called us to discuss the empress dowager. “Her condition has taken a turn” he said.
There was a standing agreement between the IHA and press club to hold a briefing if there was a sudden change in Empress Kōjun’s health (for instance, one of the conditions was if she developed a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or above). There had been such announcements in the past, but the empress had always recovered. However, considering her weakened state and that she had recently turned 97, I had a sinking feeling that things were more dire this time around. I quickly put the word out to press club members that there was to be an announcement.
The tension was palpable when I joined the other reporters in the briefing room—they obviously understood that this was to be more than a typical update on the imperial family. An IHA official appeared and explained that the Empress Kōjun had started having severe breathing troubles the night before and that she was now on a respirator.
This was an unexpected turn, even considering her advanced years. A month before, I had caught a glimpse of the empress as she waited aboard a bus to be taken to the imperial retreat in Hayama in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture. She sat midway back in the vehicle, her face showing no signs of emotion—a common trait in people with dementia. We asked her attendants about her condition, but there was no indication that her health was declining. In fact she looked quite well for a nonagenarian.
Waiting for the End
The story of the empress’s health was carried on the evening news broadcasts. Many members of the press club remembered Emperor Hirohito’s slow decline after he collapsed, a long ordeal that lasted some 100 days, and started preparing for a similarly long vigil.
The IHA is a stickler for protocol, and it was my role as press club coordinator to draw up a comprehensive list of requests from among all the outlets and hash out an agreement with the agency. I asked for a broadcasting van to be allowed to be set up on the palace grounds and a small auditorium be made available as a makeshift studio. It was agreed that national broadcaster NHK would provide a live feed and other outlets were allowed to post one camera crew each on site. As the situation was touch and go, we had to spend the night in case there were any sudden developments in the story.
The IHA held a briefing at 9:30 pm and repeated that the empress was stable but that her breathing was irregular. It was obvious from the way officials hurried about, though, that some sort of preparations were underway. Then during the night camera crews posted at the entrance of the Imperial Palace reported members of the royal family being driven into the compound, furthering our suspicions about the empress’s state.
The next day, June 16, the IHA called a press conference at 8:00 am, ahead of the scheduled time. The agency’s deputy director announced that the empress’s condition had begun to deteriorate early that morning and that she was in critical condition.
We all anticipated the worst, only to have the director-general then announce around 4:00 pm that the empress’s health had again stabilized. It looked like we were in for the long haul, when just after 5:00 pm we started hearing scattered reports that Empress Kōjun had died. I received confirmation of this from various sources, but the IHA asked the press to keep a lid on the story until there was an official announcement. To work around this restriction we had to indicate in our reporting that the news was still unverified.
At 6:30 pm the IHA grand steward, a top aide, and the court physician gathered at a press conference to announce that the empress had passed. The time of death was 4:46 pm. They said that Emperor Akihito had cut his royal duties short and raced back to the Fukiage Palace to be by his mother’s side, barely making it in time, and that he had been holding her hand at the end.
Although such intimate details were moving, I was most struck at hearing that other than being placed on a respirator, the empress was allowed a natural death. Not even injections or IVs were administered so as to avoid subjecting her to any unnecessary suffering. Emperor Akihito had agreed to this approach, something I suspect was partially a result of having witnessed his father suffer the indignity of being kept alive by artificial means.
Reaction to the news of the death of the empress varied. Some called her passing the closing of the last chapter of the Shōwa era, while others simply expressed surprise at how quickly she had slipped away.
Emperor Akihito gave her the posthumous name Kōjun, taking inspiration for it from the Kaifūsō, Japan’s oldest collection of Chinese-style poetry. The funeral for the empress was held on July 25 at the Toshimagaoka Imperial Cemetery in Tokyo and she was interred at the Musashino Imperial Mausoleum.
I was reminded at how quickly time passes when I saw the images of Princess Mako and Princess Kako at a June 16 ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the death of Empress Kōjun, their great-grandmother.
The events of those two days in June 2000 really were a marking point in history. Empress Kōjun (I still think of her as Nagako-sama) was the last of her kind, a person versed in the customs of the prewar aristocracy. She was an eminent figure who always performed her duties with grace and dignity, even as the role of emperor and empress changed around her.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on June 25, 2020. Written by Fuji TV News Analyst Hashimoto Hisashi. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)
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