The Dowager Empress Nagako, who has died aged 97, lived through the greatest trauma that ever happened to Japan and to the Japanese imperial line. When she married Emperor Hirohito, he was the Son of Heaven, the 124th direct descendant of the Sun Goddess. When the imperial procession travelled the streets, shutters were closed and onlookers bowed their heads; no one was allowed to look on the imperial face.
But after Japan's defeat in the second world war, the emperor was forced to renounce his divinity. As a mere mortal, he toured the country wearing an ill-fitting suit in the full gaze of his curious subjects. Throughout, Nagako remained the epitome of the ideal Japanese wife – a smiling silent presence, always in the background. Theirs was the longest imperial marriage in Japanese history, lasting almost 65 years.
Nagako was, nonetheless, a woman of strong character. As the eldest daughter, and third child, of Imperial Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni, she became the last Japanese empress to be chosen from the princely families which traditionally provided brides for the imperial line.
Counter to tradition, Hirohito was allowed to choose his own bride – though Nagako herself had no choice in the matter. At the age of 14, she was summoned to the imperial palace, where, along with other eligible young noble women, she took part in a tea ceremony – while Hirohito watched unseen through a peephole.
The then Japanese prime minister, who came from a rival clan, was horrified at the future emperor's choice, and set about plotting to make him change his mind, amidst claims that, on her mother's side, Nagako had colour-blind relatives. But Hirohito was adamant; Nagako was certainly not the most beautiful, but she was the one he wanted.
The betrothal was announced, and she left the Joshi Gakushin school to begin the six-year training in the accomplishments necessary for an empress. The couple were married with enormous pomp on January 26 1924 and, in 1926, Hirohito, who until then had been technically the regent, became emperor on the death of his father.
As empress, Nagako's prime responsibility was to produce a son and heir. No previous emperor had left this to chance. All, including Hirohito's father and grandfather, had had bevies of concubines. Hirohito, however, made the extraordinary decision to limit himself to his wife, and dismissed the 39 court concubines.
But after nearly 10 years of marriage, there was still no son, though Nagako had produced four daughters – one of whom died in infancy. Outside the palace gates, the country was becoming more and more unstable. Among the military, there was talk of overthrowing Hirohito and replacing him by his more aggressive brother, who had plenty of sons.
Courtiers pressed the emperor to bring back the concubines. They drew up lists of suitable young women and submitted photographs, while the court ladies took to wearing their finest dresses and perfumes. Hirohito remained unmoved. Then, in 1933, Nagako became pregnant again and, on December 23, gave birth to the present emperor, Akihito. There were celebrations throughout Japan. A second son followed.
During the second world war, Nagako took on the role of devoted mother to her people. Locked away in the imperial palace, she spent her time rolling bandages and knitting scarves for generals, or writing personal letters of condolence to bereaved families.
With the end of the war, the imperial house of Japan was thrust abruptly into the 20th century. Under the orders of the American occupation forces, Hirohito announced that he was no longer to be considered as divine. An American governess came to teach Crown Prince Akihito, and Nagako herself took English lessons.
Nagako was to be the last empress of noble blood. When Akihito chose to marry a commoner, Michiko Shoda, the daughter of a leading industrialist, the Japanese people were charmed. But Nagako disapproved and, according to rumours, made life in the palace difficult for the young crown princess.
Nagako spent her last years cloistered in the imperial palace. To older Japanese, she was a figure akin to the British Queen Mother – plump, warm-hearted, smiling and much loved. As she grew older, her health declined. She became wheelchair-bound, and was unable to attend the funeral of her husband in 1989. Rumour had it that she suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
While Hirohito's death in 1989 marked the end of an era, his widow represented the last link with the old Japan. Five years ago, she became the longest-living dowager empress, breaking the record of Empress Kanshi, who died 873 years ago. Nagako is survived by her elder son, the present emperor, three other children and 10 grandchildren.
Dowager Empress Nagako, born March 6 1903; died June 16 2000
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010