TOKYO (AP) _ When Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender over the radio in 1945, his voice, until then unheard by commoners, shocked a nation battered by countless bombings and exhausted by a war it could not win.

But later in his reign, the emperor's voice and appearances on television became part of the nation's yearly routine, showing the transformation of Hirohito's role from aloof god to gentle symbol.

Retired shopkeeper Tadashi Fujii recalled the emperor's Aug. 15 announcement: ''When I heard the broadcast I just didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it was the emperor.''

Said Fujii, 65, then in the Imperial Navy, ''Some people thought he was a god. We were educated to think of him as a deity, but when we heard his voice on the radio with all the static, many of us were just relieved that (the war) was all over, that we could go home.''

When Hirohito assumed the throne in 1926, the ancient idea that the emperor was a direct descendant of the sun goddess had been rejuvenated and hammered into the minds of the Japanese by 19th-century reformers who sought to overthrow feudalism and justify their ''modern'' approach to government.

The reformers realized that though the emperor and imperial family have rarely wielded power, no government has been able to rule without their tacit approval.

Historians agree that the emperors of Japan have not held real power since the ninth century. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 is named after the Meiji emperor, but he was then only 15, and it was his ministers who made all the changes that created modern Japan.

The reformers' constitution of 1889, on paper at least, declared Hirohito's grandfather, the Meiji emperor, to be sacred, inviolable and the supreme authority in all matters of government.

Wartime militarists built on the god-emperor image, turning it into impetus to keep the nation fighting. In the war's final days, Hirohito did assert himself, telling generals: ''I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer.''

The postwar constitution, largely imposed by U.S. occupation authorities, redefined the emperor's role. He became ''the symbol'' of the state and of the people. The emperor himself told the nation he was not a divinity in 1946.

During the Allied occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur chose to deny a request by the emperor to step down and take responsibility for the war, opting instead to get him out among the people to help create an egalitarian society.

The emperor responded in 1946 by embarking on a 165-day trek around the country, covering all provinces but Okinawa.

''His travels in the provinces right after the war played a key role in boosting morale and unifying the Japanese,'' said Toshiaki Kawahara, a journalist and author specializing in the imperial family. ''He met the people, talked to them.''

And the imperial will as interpreted by MacArthur continued long after the occupation ended in 1952 and Japan took control of its own destiny.

''The emperor served as a symbol and a uniting factor in the nation's redevelopment,'' Kawahara said.

By opening the Chrysanthemum Throne to an extent never before seen, Hirohito's postwar reign also symbolized the nation's growing democratization, Kawahara said.

Each year since 1958, to celebrate the New Year and Hirohito's birthday on April 29, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were opened to swarms of Japanese seeking a glimpse of the monarch, who would wave and give a short speech.

One year after these public appearances began, the emperor allowed his son, Crown Prince Akihito, to marry a commoner. The break with tradition greatly enhanced the popularity of the imperial family.

But direct contact with common Japanese became more infrequent as Hirohito aged.

The ambivalence of the nation's young people toward the emperor and the imperial system was reflected by a 25-year-old office worker, Toshiko Kodama, who said: ''I feel nothing but pity for him. He was so weak.''