Imperial Couple to charter plane, sleep on ship to visit Palau war dead

by Mai Iida


As this year marks 70 years since the end of World War II, Emperor Akihito plans to fulfill his long-held desire to visit Palau next week, a decade after infrastructure issues ruined his previous plans.

Before the Emperor and Empress Michiko visited Saipan in 2005 for their first overseas trip to commemorate the war dead, trips to Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia had been considered but abandoned due to obstacles, including the lack of a runway suitable for Japanese government aircraft.

But this time, the April 8 to 9 trip to Palau, about 3,000 km due south of Shikoku, will be carried out by a private chartered plane.

The seemingly strong motives for visiting far-flung battlefields may lie in the Emperor’s “deep, indefinable emotion” about the more than 3 million Japanese who died in waging or enduring the war in the name of his father, Emperor Hirohito, said Yuji Otabe, a professor of modern Japanese history at Shizuoka University of Welfare.

Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, held supreme command of Japan’s wartime armed forces. He was largely viewed as a living Shinto god by the Japanese people at that time, and they fought and died in his name.

“The (current) Emperor has acted as the symbol of postwar peace, while bearing that history,” said Otabe, who has written many books on the Imperial household. He said it appears the Emperor, 81, is trying to pursue justice in his own way as much as possible, “all the more because of his old age.”

To mourn the war dead, the Imperial Couple have toured domestic sites that experienced particularly high death tolls, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both destroyed by the U.S. atomic bombings in 1945, and Okinawa, where about 200,000 civilians and soldiers, including over 10,000 U.S. troops, perished.

Beyond Japan’s shores, Emperor Akihito has been trying to visit as many war-linked countries as possible, according to a former aide.

In World War I, which began in 1914, Japan took over German colonies in the Pacific, including Palau. The region became a Pacific mandate under the League of Nations and Japan administered it until the end of World War II in 1945, designating the city of Koror as the center of the territory.

The many Japanese settlers there, which reached more than 20,000 in the 1940s, allowed Japan to influence Palau’s culture. The modern Palauan languages uses many Japanese-derived words, including denwa (telephone), and some seniors still speak Japanese.

In World War II, one of its many islets, Peleliu, became the site of a bloody two-month battle in September 1944 that left an estimated 10,000 Japanese soldiers and around 1,600 U.S. troops dead.

Not aware that Japan had surrendered in August 1945, 34 Japanese soldiers continued to hide in the jungles of Peleliu until April 1947.

“The defense forces stationed on Peleliu Island fought so hard, gaining compliments from Emperor Showa 11 times,” said 95-year-old Kiyokazu Tsuchida, one of the holdouts, earlier this year after learning of the Emperor’s plan to visit. “So the Emperor’s visit to the island will make fallen comrades all the more pleased in heaven.”

Emperor Akihito was 11 when the war ended. At the news conference for his 80th birthday in 2013, when asked what event in his life had left the deepest impression, he answered “the previous war.”

“About 3.1 million Japanese people are said to have lost their lives in the war. It still pains me deeply to think that so many people, who must have had various dreams and hopes for the future, lost their lives at a young age,” he said.

For the trip to Palau, the Imperial Couple are scheduled to visit a cenotaph Japan erected on Peleliu, as well as a monument to the fallen U.S. soldiers there, to console their souls and pray for peace.

In an unprecedented move, the Emperor and Empress, also 80, will lodge on the Japan Coast Guard patrol ship Akitsushima. They will also travel between the Palauan islands using a helicopter from the 6,500-ton vessel.

The plan and the unusual accommodations have stirred concern that the trip may be too strenuous for the couple. Both developed a fever in late March that caused them to cancel some of their official engagements.

The Imperial Household Agency said the itinerary was arranged as the “best course of action” for them to run the gamut of events for commemorating the war dead and for promoting international friendship under a tight schedule.