In recent years, the Imperial couple have made an effort to leave behind a meaningful legacy by visiting World War II battlefields. The idea is to ensure that future generations of Japanese do not forget the war and its bitter lessons.

However, until they visited the Philippines two weeks ago their destinations have been places where the casualties were mostly Japanese. In Manila, they commemorated a battle in which the victims were mainly local civilians, 60 percent of whom perished at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Watching the Japanese media tip-toe around this fact was interesting and a little depressing.

The coverage focused on the Emperor and Empress visiting landmarks for fallen Japanese, or meeting with Japanese expatriates and offspring of Japanese-Filipino heritage. In one of his speeches, the Emperor stressed that “innocent” Filipinos were killed in the war, and Asahi Shimbun was one of the few major media outlets to run a feature on the Imperial couple’s appointment with descendants of late Philippine President Elpidio Quirino, who pardoned all Japanese war criminals in 1953. Though Quirino’s act is well-known in the Philippines, it is glossed over in Japan despite the fact that it remains the seminal event in postwar Japan-Philippines relations.

The reason for the omission is obvious: Any discussion of the Quirino pardon would have to mention the crimes that were forgiven. During the New Year’s holiday, NHK rebroadcast a series of documentaries from recent years, and one was about Quirino. Following the broadcast, filmmaker Tatsuya Mori commented that he was not aware of the pardon, and a female announcer added how Japan is always “talking about apologies” for the war, but it’s difficult to form an opinion of such matters when you have no knowledge of the situations that inform them.

The Battle of Manila, the bloodiest urban fighting in the Pacific theater, took place during the month of February 1945. U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, making good on his promise to “return” after abandoning the Commonwealth of the Philippines to invading Japanese forces in December 1941, carried out a brutal bombardment of the city when it became apparent the remaining Japanese forces would not surrender, despite the Americans’ overwhelming fire power and the fact that what was left of the Imperial Japanese Army had retreated to the mountains, leaving behind a poorly armed group of marines who were told to “defend the city to the last man.”

More than 100,000 Filipino civilians died in the fighting. Though a good portion were killed in the American shelling, Japanese soldiers massacred many others, including Quirino’s wife and three of his children, who were gunned down and bayoneted on the street in front of his eyes. In the NHK documentary, other Filipinos talk about witnessing Japanese atrocities.

After the war, the surviving Japanese soldiers were tried as war criminals. About 100 were convicted, with half receiving death sentences. Over the next several years, 14 were hanged. Quirino, who assumed the presidency of the newly independent Philippines in 1948, signed the orders for some of them. At the time he was at odds with the United States, which he felt had reneged on its promise to help his country rebuild. For its part, the U.S. thought Quirino was not doing enough in the new Cold War against world communism.

At the same time, the Philippines wanted reparations from Japan, who asked that Quirino commute the death sentences of the remaining war criminals. These pressures came to a head when Quirino was diagnosed with cancer and he ran for reelection against an opponent backed by the U.S. As his diary and surviving relatives attest, he decided to pardon the Japanese prisoners when he realized that his days were numbered. As a statesman, he knew Japan was a “great country” despite the sins of its military, and understood that cooperation was essential for the Philippines’ future. He allowed the prisoners to return to Japan, where they were held at Sugamo Prison. Two days before the end of his term, he signed a pardon freeing them.

His countrymen were enraged. They wanted the Japanese to pay for what they had done, but over the years the Philippines has come to accept the pardons as not only a nod to diplomatic expedience, but an act of forgiveness that resonates profoundly in this predominantly Catholic society.

And as Satoshi Nakano, a Hitotsubashi University professor who has done extensive research on the Philippines, pointed out on TBS radio Jan. 27, the Japanese who lived through the war appreciated the magnitude of Quirino’s gesture, because while the Japanese military burned its bridges behind it, the Filipino survivors kept detailed records of the massacres, and even before it was over the Americans were documenting the atrocities by talking to survivors, who, unlike a lot of civilian victims of Japanese aggression, were literate and educated. Some, in fact, wrote books about their ordeal.

It was taboo to talk about the American bombing, so the country’s anger was directed at the Japanese war criminals, even though some may not have actually committed any crimes. The Japanese postwar government understood the situation, and while they couldn’t pay as much in reparations as Quirino demanded, the amount they did pay was the largest given to any country that Japan had invaded. “They felt it was not such a large sum if the Philippines absolved us,” Nakano explained.

So unlike China and South Korea, which still demand apologies, the Philippines as a nation has moved beyond its resentment, even though, as Nakano says, they understand that Japanese persons under the age of 60 probably know nothing about the Battle of Manila, since there is no system in Japan to pass on these memories. The Japanese media sheepishly played down the Emperor’s gesture, but it was certainly intended to impress on the Japanese people that they must remember these things, because that is the only way to avoid repeating them.

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