Imperial Couple’s Saipan visit may inflame regional disputes

by Shinya Ajima

Kyodo News

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will visit Saipan from June 27 to 28 to fulfill part of their long-held wish to pay homage to victims at sites where Japan fought the United States during World War II.

But the government is apparently trying to muffle the Imperial Couple’s visit to the Western Pacific island, once occupied by the Japanese military, because of recent disputes between Japan and its neighbors over war-related issues.

“This time, the visit by the Imperial Couple is only aimed at expressing condolences to the victims who died in the Battle of Saipan. It will be different from their usual goodwill visits to foreign countries,” said an official of the Japanese Consul General’s office on Guam, which is near Saipan.

“The tour will be as simple as possible,” the official said.

Saipan was the site of some of the war’s fiercest fighting.

Some 43,000 Japanese soldiers, 12,000 civilians, 5,000 American soldiers and 900 local residents died on Saipan and the nearby island of Tinian during a three-week battle from June to July 1944.

Many Japanese soldiers and civilians had moved to the islands after Japan took them over in 1920.

After the U.S. won the battle, it used both Saipan and Tinian as bases to launch air raids on Japan’s main islands. The B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima took off from Tinian.

Peter Callaghan, press secretary for Gov. Juan Babuta of the U.S. Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, said: “We understand the solemnity of their visit . . . but at the same time we are anxious to show the beautiful island of Saipan to the people of Japan.

“And now we are proud to show the transformation Saipan has undergone in the past 60 years. We will welcome Their Majesties with open arms,” Callaghan said in a written comment.

The Imperial Couple’s visit to Saipan, which coincides with the 60th anniversary in 2005 of the end of World War II, is part of their effort to visit locations related to the war. They have already visited Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa and Iwojima Island.

Saipan, however, will be the first foreign destination they visit solely for the purpose of expressing condolences to war victims.

The couple have a strong desire to visit Saipan because no member of the Imperial family has done so yet, according to the Imperial Household Agency. A plan to visit the area last year was canceled for security reasons.

The couple are scheduled to visit a monument the Japanese government erected in 1974, a memorial park for American soldiers and a cultural facility for the aged, where they will talk with local people.

The Emperor and Empress are also expected to see cliffs on the island from which hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths after refusing to surrender.

One of the cliffs, now a famous tourist spot, is called Banzai Cliff, which was named after those Japanese who committed suicide while shouting the traditional banzai cheer for the late Emperor Hirohito.

The late Emperor, who headed the Japanese military during the war, was the father of the present Emperor.

Before Japan lost the war, it was decreed that the emperor was all-powerful and a descendant of the gods.

In 1946, however, Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, denied his divinity and was innocuously defined as “the symbol of state” under the postwar Constitution, instead of being held responsible for the war by the Allied tribunal.

The visit to Saipan will come amid deteriorating relations between Japan and its neighbors over war-related issues, including: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s continued visits to Yasukuni Shrine, revisionist textbooks that critics say gloss over Japanese war atrocities, and other disputed facts of history that Japanese leaders refuse to recognize.

China and South Korea in particular have bitter memories of Japan’s colonial rule and have strongly protested government leaders’ repeated visits to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.

The two nation’s have also blasted the government’s decision to approve history textbooks they say whitewash Japan’s militarist past.

Japanese and South Korean historians recently failed to reach a common understanding about history despite three years of research.

The emperor is prohibited from being involved in any political activity under the postwar Constitution.

But analysts point to concerns that the visit to Saipan might be seen in other parts of Asia as being highly politicized and glossing over Japan’s past, even though the tour is only designed to comfort the spirits of war victims and pledge the renunciation of war, the main pillar of the postwar Constitution.

“It’s likely that people in other Asian countries cannot tell the difference between the Emperor’s visit to Saipan and visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese lawmakers,” said Motofumi Asai, head of Hiroshima City University Hiroshima Peace Institute.

The Saipan visit “might provoke misunderstanding,” added Asai, also a former director of the China division at the Foreign Ministry.

Kitti Prasirtsuk, an assistant professor on Japanese studies at Thammasat University in Thailand, believes the Emperor might be seen as paying attention only to Japanese victims, saying, “I think Saipan is virtually the place to comfort the spirits of the Japanese, rather than those who suffered from the Japanese aggression.

“Most Southeast Asians don’t know what happened in Saipan. People will ask why the Emperor chose Saipan, while other places in Asia suffered more clearly during the war,” he said.

On Saipan, preparations are under way to welcome the 71-year-old Emperor and his wife, 70, but in a low-key mood.

“I think it’s an honor for him (the Emperor) to be here,” said Chuck Sayon, manager of American Memorial Park Visitors Center, a recently opened exhibition hall for the Battle of Saipan.

“The Emperor’s trip obviously makes people ask a lot of questions about what happened during that time. And it’s basically up to people to find out for themselves what to learn about what happened,” Sayon said.