Hirohito's cancer

All in the family

By William Wetherall

Drafted 21 December 1988
Posted December 2002

"That's strange. There're not supposed to be any cancerous blood [gan no ketto] in our family line," Emperor Hirohito whispered in a grief-stricken voice when told by Dr. Sugimura Masao that his first daughter, Higashikuni Shigeko, was dying of cancer. The date was 22 July 1961. Around 3:00 that afternoon, Hirohito went to visit Shigeko at the Imperial Household Agency Hospital, where she had been brought after receiving an operation at First National Hospital.

Hirohito sat down and watched her suffering. He got up once in the evening to contact other imperial family members of former members. Midnight passed and Shigeko was obviously in great pain.

"The patient seems to be suffering, Sugimura, can't something be done?" Hirohito said around three in the morning.

"You say 'Can't something be done,' but if I stop the intravenous and transfusion, and stop the oxygen, she'll immediately pass away," Sugimura said, thinking that Hirohito was hinting at euthanasia.

"Would ordering you to do that [Sore o aete yare to iu koto wa] violate the Medical Act?" Hirohito said.

Sugimura thought for a while then said, "It's against the way of medicine, so Sugimura cannot stop [the treatment]."

Thirty minutes later, Terunomiya Shigeko, born on 3 December 1925, and the mother of Hirohito's first grandchildren, breathed her last. Hirohito had been at her side in vigil for twelve hours. When Sugimura told him that she had passed away, Hirohito nodded and said, "So ka." Then both he and Empress Nagako touched Shigeko's face and hair.

This account of Hirohito's response to Shigeko's cancerous death is based on Iwakawa Takashi's book, Uwagi o nuida tenno [The emperor who took off his coat] (Kadokawa Shoten, 1986 and 1988), which depends on Sugimura's candid portrait of Hirohito as a patient, entitled Tenno sama o-myaku haiken [Taking the emperor's pulse] (Shinchosha, 1982).

Hirohito's many personal encounters with dying and death must have prepared him for his own death. His expertise in marine biology should have made the subject of his own medical problems--including cancer--broachable with his physicians. Hirohito has been seen every day of his life as emperor by at least one of the four court physicians, and he has been thoroughly examined once a week.

In October 1975, Hirohito was asked at a press conference if it were true that he had never eaten blowfish. "I've heard talk about it, but I don't eat it because my doctors say I simply must not eat it."

At 10:30 one night, as Dr. Sugimura was preparing to leave after giving Hirohito his daily pre-bed checkup, the emperor asked him why he couldn't eat blowfish. Dissatisfied with Sugimura's vague reply, he engaged Sugimura in a debate on blowfish that went on for nearly two hours before the empress, who usually waited in the next room during the examination, stuck her head in the door and wondered if perhaps this might not be a good place for Sugimura to stop.

Sugimura gives the impression that he and the emperor were really getting into it. The emperor seems to have enjoyed chiding Sugimura for advising him not to eat blowfish while knowing little about what parts can be eaten, of what kinds of blowfish are poisonous. Though Sugimura did have some knowledge about the hazards of making blowfish safe for eating, he realized that the was talking with an expert on marine biology, and he resolved to learn more about blowfish.

Both Crown Prince Akihito and Prince Hitachi share their father's scientific interests in the creatures of the sea. Hitachi's specialty is even the cancer of fish. So the subject of cancer should be neither alien nor taboo among members of the imperial family.

The Imperial Household Agency must have other reasons for not wanting to keep reports about the emperor's cancer out of the news. The agency is famous for its efforts to suppress medical facts about members of the imperial family, especially the emperor and empress. Sugimura claims that he felt pressured to resign after a disagreement with the powerful Grand Chamberlain Irie, who successfully opposed Sugimura's plan for treating the empress when she broke her hip at the Nasu Palace on 17 July 1977. The plan would have involved outsiders and thus leakage of news about the empress's injury.

The emperor's first reaction was to let Sugimura move the empress to the Imperial Household Agency Hospital in Tokyo. By the next day, however, he had changed his mind, apparently after talking to Irie. Nor did Irie want to attract attention by purchasing a traction bed or corset, or let Sugimura's wife, herself a doctor, treat the empress. Finally Sugimura engaged the help of his physician son to help him build a traction unit.