The death of Japanese Emperor Hirohito literally marks the end of an era.

Here was a man who was the last surviving leader of the great powers that clashed in World War II, a man whose 63-year reign was the longest in Japanese history.That reign saw Japan turn to authoritarianism and war, then collapse in defeat, finally to rise again in freedom and unprecedented prosperity.

Once considered a god, Hirohito was transformed overnight by Japan's World War II defeat into a human figurehead whose greatest influence was simply as a symbol of the unity of the Japanese people.

Throughout it all, Hirohito served gracefully, winning the affection of his people and eventually the admiration of much of the rest of the world.

The young Hirohito became an accomplished marine biologist - a lifelong passion - and the first Japanese crown prince to tour Europe. But he spent the pre-war years in a rarefied court atmosphere almost unimaginable by Western standards.

That atmosphere has made it hard for historians to judge the extent of Hirohito's responsibility for Japan's part in World War II. Some say Hirohito was manipulated into the war in the Pacific by his fanatic generals and admirals. Others insist that Hirohito took a more active role in planning Japanese aggression. But even if the emperor did not help plot the aggression, he evidently did not try to stop it.

Everyone, however, agrees that Hirohito asserted himself to bring about Japan's surrender in 1945, overriding his diehard war minister and chiefs of staff.

With the ascension of his son Akihito to the throne, a new era in Japan's long imperial history is beginning. Akihito has shown signs of being more atuned to the world around him than his father was. With his 1959 marriage to a commoner, Akihito shocked the imperial retinue and thrilled the public. A few years ago, he succeeded in doing away with the privilege of having his motorcades pass unimpeded through red lights. Moreover, by his frequent visits to factory openings, festivals, and various observances inside and outside Japan, Akihito has shown a desire to make the imperial family more accessible.

As a promising new era begins, may new generations of Japanese always remember some good advice from Emperor Hirohito: "We should not be blinded by the prosperity of the moment. The world changes second by second."