Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have just completed a five-day official visit to the Philippines — their first since traveling there as Crown Prince and Crown Princess in 1962. While they made last week’s visit at the invitation of President Benigno Aquino to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Philippines, an important aspect of the trip was consoling the souls of people who died in the fighting there during World War II. The Emperor expressed his strong feelings toward the war when he embarked on the trip, referring to “countless Filipino, American and Japanese lives” lost in the Philippines during the war and to the fierce battles fought in the city of Manila. “This history will always be in our hearts as we make this visit to the Philippines,” he said.
Today, the Philippines and Japan have friendly ties. But this should not blind us to what happened during the war. The Imperial Couple’s visit to the Philippines should remind us of the need to remember the damage and suffering Japan’s war brought to the people of the Philippines. Without acknowledging the past, true friendship and trust with that country will be difficult. This also applies to Japan’s relations with any other Asian country that suffered from its wartime aggression.
The Philippines became a target of Japanese attacks from the outset of the Pacific War. Just 10 hours after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 8, 1941, Japan began bombing U.S. bases in the Philippines, which was an American colony. In January 1942, Japanese forces occupied Manila and established a military government. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, and his staff retreated to Australia. Following the Japanese military’ victory over Allied forces on the Bataan Peninsula, American and Filipino prisoners of war were forced to walk some 106 km to POW camps, during which an estimated 20,000 of them died in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, an amphibious invasion of Leyte Island that started in October 1944 under the command of MacArthur, was a major turning point in the war in the Philippines. The U.S. forces overwhelmed the Japanese military with their superior equipment and supplies, leaving 70,000 Japanese dead. For the first time in the war, Japan launched organized kamikaze attacks in an attempt to turn the tables.
After Japan’s Southern Expeditionary Army decided not to declare Manila an open city and abandon all defensive efforts, fierce fighting took place there from early February to early March in 1945 and devastated the city of over 800,000 people. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed in the Pacific War’s first and most violent urban warfare — some were caught in the crossfire, but others were victims of massacres committed by Japanese troops. The beautiful city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” was reduced to smoldering ruins. Some 518,000 Japanese, including civilians, died in the fighting that raged across the Philippines from 1941 to 1945. But almost double that number of Filipinos— some 1.11 million — are believed to have been killed.
To express their consolation for the souls of the war victims, the Imperial Couple on the second day of their visit laid flowers at the Heroes’ Cemetery, dedicated to Filipinos who fought and died in World War II, and on Friday paid their respect at the monument in Caliraya on the eastern part of Luzon Island that is dedicated to the Japanese who died in the war in various parts of the country.
In a speech at a banquet at Malacanang Palace, the Emperor said, “During this war, fierce battles between Japan and the United States took place on Philippine soil, resulting in the loss of many Filipino lives and leaving many Filipinos injured. This is something we Japanese must never forget and we intend to keep this engraved in our hearts throughout our visit.” The statement should be taken as a call for us to ponder what Japan’s war did to the Filipinos and other peoples, and learn a lesson from it.
Given the suffering that the war caused Filipinos, it’s understandable that their feelings toward Japan remained bitter for years. Yet it should not be forgotten that in 1953 President Elpidio Quirino, whose wife and three of his five children were killed by Japanese soldiers in Manila, pardoned all 108 Japanese Class-B and -C war criminals — including 53 sentenced to death, who were jailed in a Muntinlupa prison despite the overwhelmingly anti-Japanese sentiment that prevailed.
In his banquet speech, the Emperor mentioned the settlement of Japanese traders in Manila in the mid-16th century and the 19th century Philippine nationalist hero Jose Rizal’s visit to Japan. Hopefully the Imperial Couple’s visit to the Philippines will stimulate Japanese people’s interest in exploring the history and culture of the Philippines as well as help them realize the extremely high human cost of war and the importance of remembering and learning from Japan’s past.