Emperor Akihito said Tuesday that Japan must remember the tremendous loss of life in the Philippines during World War II, as he and Empress Michiko embarked for a four-day visit to the Southeast Asian country.
Upon arriving at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the Imperial Couple were greeted by Philippine President Benigno Aquino and other government officials.
A number of people, including about 70 Japanese elementary school students living in the Philippines, welcomed the couple in front of the hotel where they will stay.
“He’s very gentle. . . . He really waved at us and bowed, so we waved back and bowed as a sign of respect,” said Marlo Tena, 46, one of the people who saw the Emperor and Empress near the hotel.
The Imperial Couple met with members of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program and strolled with them on a beach.
It is the first-ever official visit by a reigning Japanese emperor to the Philippines, where around 1.1 million Filipinos and some 518,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians perished during the war.
The Imperial Couple visited the Philippines in 1962 when they were Crown Prince and Crown Princess.
“Many Filipinos, Americans and Japanese lost their lives in the Philippines during the war,” the Emperor said in a short statement he read before departing from Tokyo. “Especially in the battle in Manila, a tremendously large number of innocent Filipino civilians were victims. Upon making this visit, we need to bear this in mind at all times.”
Japan occupied the Philippines during World War II. The 1945 battle for Manila between the Japanese and U.S. and Philippine forces leveled the city.
The return of the Emperor, 82, and the Empress, 81, after more than half a century comes at the invitation of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, extended during his state visit to Japan last June.
The Emperor’s father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, was commander in chief of the Japanese military before and during the war and Japanese soldiers at the time fought and died in his name.
In the twilight of his reign, Emperor Akihito has been traveling with the Empress to places devastated by the war at home and abroad, including Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, in 2005 and Palau last year, in commemoration of the 60th and 70th anniversaries of the conflict’s end in 1945.
While the Emperor and Empress have previously traveled to countries hard hit by Japan’s wartime aggression, including China and some other Southeast Asian nations since they ascended the throne in 1989, the Philippines has been one of a few affected nations not visited by the Imperial Couple.
The Imperial Japanese Army launched airstrikes on the Philippines, then a U.S. colony, on Dec. 8, 1941 (Dec. 7 Hawaiian time), the same day Japan attacked Peal Harbor in Hawaii, marking the start of the Pacific phase of World War II.
Japan occupied Manila in January 1942, but local residents continued to resist the move through guerrilla fighting. A month of Japan-U.S. fighting in Manila from February 1945 claimed the lives of around 100,000 Filipino civilians.
Imperial family members, including Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saw the couple off at Haneda airport in Tokyo. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to attend a welcoming ceremony at Malacanang Palace in the capital and meet Aquino in the morning, and visit a cemetery for Filipino victims to lay flowers in the afternoon. After that, they will return to the palace to attend a banquet. On Thursday, the couple are expected to meet people of Japanese descent living in the Philippines.
On Friday, they will travel by helicopter to Caliraya, about 65 km southeast of their accommodations in Manila, and lay flowers at a monument installed by the Japanese government to commemorate the war dead, before returning to Japan the following day.