TOKYO — Japan's Dowager Empress Nagako, the widow of Emperor Hirohito, died on Friday after a life that spanned nearly a century of tumultuous change. She was 97.

"Her death is a deep sorrow," said Sadame Kamakura, head of the Imperial Household Agency.

She was the consort of the last occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne — the world's oldest monarchy — to be considered divine.

Well-wishers flocked to the palace in central Tokyo during the day to pray for her, even though she was a remote figure who was rarely seen in public after the death of her husband in 1989.

"The death of Emperor Hirohito was the beginning of the end of an era, and this truly marks the end," an office worker told a television news program.

Television played footage of her life, showing images from her youth, the dark days of World War II and her travels with her husband around the world after he gave up his divinity following Japan's defeat.

The Cabinet called for flags to fly at half-staff and said public events should not include singing, dancing or music for a day.

A Shinto-style funeral would be held in about six weeks because it would take at least a month to prepare her elaborate tomb at the imperial family mausoleum on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Nagako was portrayed as a talented artist and devoted wife during her nearly 65 years of marriage.

But she was also said to have displayed a darker side during her decades as royal consort within the cloistered walls of the secretive imperial palace.

Imperial mother-in-law to the first commoner ever to wed a Japanese crown prince, Nagako was rumored to have joined in the bullying by royal courtiers that drove her daughter-in-law Michiko to the brink of a breakdown.

Born on March 6, 1903 as the first daughter of then Prince Kunihiko Kuni, a descendant of a 13th century emperor, Nagako was chosen at the tender age of 14 to become Hirohito's consort.

Thus began a life of royal seclusion.

Within a month, Nagako left the Joshi Gakushuin school and began to study under tutors for her role as future empress.

Despite her impeccable lineage, hot debate raged over her eligibility to become the wife of a crown prince who, upon ascension to the throne, would be revered as a "living god."

The allegations by a medical journal that some of her mother's relatives were color blind were later dismissed as a ploy by court enemies to scuttle the marriage.

The destructive Tokyo earthquake of 1923 delayed marriage plans, but on January 26, 1924, Nagako and Hirohito were wed. On December 25, 1926, Hirohito became emperor.

Under pressure to produce a royal son to inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne, Nagako first gave birth to four daughters, including one who died in infancy.

Courtiers pressured Emperor Hirohito to take a concubine, since only a male can succeed to the throne.

But at last on December 23, 1933, Nagako fulfilled her royal duty, giving birth to Crown Prince Akihito—an event she was later to call "the happiest moment in my life."

Nagako had two more children, including a second son.

Nagako's image as devoted wife, talented poet and musician and the warm-hearted granny of her later years, however, stands in contrast to rumours painting a picture of harsh treatment of her commoner daughter-in-law Michiko.

Michiko Shoda was the eldest daughter of a wealthy flour company executive, and her marriage to then crown prince Akihito was an unprecedented break with tradition.

While the public saw it as a welcome move that brought the Imperial family closer, talk swirled that for Nagako and many royal courtiers, it was an unwelcome blow.

The nation watched sadly as the crown princess, a spirited woman seen as the epitome of feminine charm, grew gaunt and sombre amid rumours she was being bullied into submission.

"I believe such talk is true," one royal watcher said.

"But similar things happen in royal families around the world when outsiders marry in."

The current Crown Princess Masako, a once-vibrant and outspoken career diplomat, has herself been transformed into a demure, soft-spoken shadow of her former self after seven years of cloistered life behind the Chrysanthemum curtain.

Like Nagako, Masako is under pressure to produce an heir.

Hopes that Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito would greet their seventh anniversary on June 9 as expectant parents were dashed when the 36-year-old Masako suffered a miscarriage in December.