Emperor Akihito will travel to the Philippines this week to visit World War II memorials, the latest of his pacifist pilgrimages, which appear increasingly at odds with the government’s rightward drift.
Now in his twilight years, Akihito, 82, has made honoring Japanese and non-Japanese who died in the conflict a touchstone of his nearly three-decade reign — known as the Heisei Era, or era of “achieving peace.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, wants to revise the war-renouncing Constitution, seeing it as an embarrassing remnant of its defeat in World War II and occupation by the Allied Powers.
In the Philippines, which saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, Akihito and Empress Michiko will visit the National Heroes’ Cemetery and a memorial for Japanese war dead during a five-day visit starting Tuesday.
“The Emperor has been very consistent with the fact that Japan is apologetic about their aggression,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
Such contrition, decades of Japanese economic aid and the Philippines’ search for allies in a maritime dispute with increasingly powerful China have made Abe’s nationalist lurch — which includes strengthening his military — palatable in Manila.
“We in the Philippines are OK with Japan becoming a normal power,” Heydarian said.
Akihito is strictly limited to being a “symbol of the state” under the U.S.-imposed Constitution, which was devised to prevent any return to the fanatic militarism seen during the early reign of his father, Hirohito, who is known posthumously as Emperor Showa.
Abe last year pushed through legislation that, under certain conditions, could allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since 1945. The law were enacted amid mass protests over fears the country could be dragged into conflict in support of allies, particularly the U.S.
Despite the constitutional restraints, the soft-spoken Akihito, who was 11 when the war ended in the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is still seen as getting his point across about the importance of cherishing Japan’s postwar peace.
“He is the Emperor so he really can’t speak from a political standpoint,” said Fumiko Imagawa, who went to the Imperial Palace earlier this month to hear Akihito’s brief annual New Year’s message.
Still, she added, “His own thoughts are conveyed in each word.”
Akihito has previously journeyed to the sites of other Pacific battles where Japanese troops and civilians made desperate last stands in his father’s name.
On visits to Saipan in 2005 and Palau last year he prayed not just for the Japanese soldiers and civilians who perished, but also former colonial subjects including Koreans and troops from its wartime enemy, the United States.
In remarks in August at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, Akihito expressed “profound remorse” for the war fought in his father’s name, reportedly the first time he had used those words at the annual event.
Author Masayasu Hosaka says Akihito has become clearer in his pacifist comments in recent years.
“The reason is perhaps that in reflecting on his life he is looking back on what he should have done as Emperor, seeing if there are things he has not spoken enough about or words he wants to leave behind,” Hosaka wrote in a recently published book.
To be sure, “peace” and “remorse” are words Abe himself utters, and in August as the world watched he said Japan would stand by previous war apologies.
But Abe’s other comments and actions, including having prevaricated over whether Japan’s wartime aggression amounted to “invasion,” as well as his 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals were secretly enshrined, have raised questions about his sincerity.
In December, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party launched a group to review modern history amid reports it would consider issues including the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking, which Tokyo has been accused of playing down.
By contrast, early last year Akihito said Japanese should “study and learn from the history” of the war “as we consider the future direction of our country.”
Manila-based Heydarian says that what helps Filipinos reconcile is that history weighs less heavily on them, while their government does not “peddle this narrative of historical victimhood,” alluding to China, where sentiment remains bitter.
Sonny Sanchez, a retired businessman, concurs that his compatriots are not the type to hold grudges, but he also points to Japan’s frequent disaster aid and support in its dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.
“I love the Emperor and his family,” he said after watching the palace New Year’s greeting on a trip to Tokyo with his wife and sons.
“That’s why we came here, just to take a glimpse of him for a few seconds.”