Emperor Akihito arrived Wednesday in the Pacific island nation of Palau, where he will visit a World War II battlefield, the latest journey in his efforts to soothe the wounds of the conflict that still haunts Asia 70 years after its end.
Some 10,000 Japanese defenders died fighting in the name of the Emperor’s father, Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Emperor Showa), in a two-month battle in 1944 on Palau’s tiny Peleliu Island along with about 1,600 American troops.
Japan administered Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in the interwar period.
“We believe that we must never forget that those beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean have such a tragic history,” the Emperor said in a statement released Wednesday. “We will mourn and pay tribute to both the Japanese and Americans who perished in the region.”
The statement said that by 1935 or so more than 50,000 Japanese nationals were living in the three island nations under Japan’s administration, outnumbering the native population.
“Our thoughts go out to all those who went to the battlefields to defend their countries, never to return home,” the Emperor said in the statement.
He added that thanks are due to the people of Palau who “worked hard after the war to care for the memorial cenotaphs and cemeteries and to collect the remains of the fallen.”
When their plane arrived, the Imperial Couple were welcomed by local people, including around 40 children.
After meeting with President Tommy Remengesau, a fourth-generation Japanese-Palauan, and his wife at the airport, they visited the Palau International Coral Reef Center, which was established with Japanese government aid.
Later in the day, the Imperial Couple were to attend a banquet sponsored by the Palau government, with Micronesian President Emanuel Mori and Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak and their wives in attendance. Both countries were also under Japanese rule before and during the war.
Unaware that Japan had surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, 34 Japanese soldiers hid in jungles in Palau until April 1947.
“By going to these old battlefields and praying for those who lost their lives in that war, (the Emperor) is not trying to glorify the war,” Yoshitaka Shindo, a former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, told reporters recently.
“(But) if those who died had not lived, we would not exist now,” said Shindo, whose grandfather commanded Japanese troops in the bloody battle of Iwojima. “So we must never forget our ancestors.”
Besides mourning war dead at home, the Emperor has sought to help reconciliation with former enemies. In 1992, he became the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit China, where wartime memories still rankle.
The Emperor and his wife, Empress Michiko, marked the 60th anniversary of the conflict’s end with a trip to the U.S. territory of Saipan, site of fierce fighting in 1944.
The soft-spoken Emperor, 81, has often urged Japan not to forget the suffering of the war. Such comments have attracted increased attention at a time when Abe appears to be pushing for a less apologetic tone toward Japan’s past.
“He has been saying the Japanese need to reflect on their history, including the dark chapters,” said Kenneth Ruoff of Portland State University. Ruoff is author of “The People’s Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995.”
Some young Japanese also worry memories are fading.
“Until now, you had veterans and families of the deceased who could talk about their experiences,” said Atsushi Hirano, 22, a student who travels to old battlefields to help collect remains and bring them home. “But those people are older now and it is harder to hear about their experiences firsthand.”
Members of Japan’s dwindling band of veterans are grateful for the royal pilgrimages.
“We felt we had to fight on for the country, for the Emperor, for our families,” said Masao Horie, 99, who survived a doomed campaign in New Guinea, where more Japanese soldiers died of starvation and disease than in battle.
“I am truly grateful that the Emperor goes to places like Saipan and Palau,” he said.