SAIPAN – Even 14 years later, the trip by Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands remains one of the Pacific island’s most memorable occasions.
News about the emperor’s April 30 abdication stirred memories among some residents of the then-imperial couple’s June 27-28 visit in 2005 to the island to honor those who died in World War II.
Saipan, the principal island of the 14 comprising the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, a self-governing U.S. territory, was a major battlefield in 1944.
“A lot of people were shocked and surprised at the announcement of the emperor retiring. But after the initial shock, people realize that when you reach an advanced age, you become a realist at what you can and can’t do,” said 65-year-old Juan Babauta, the commonwealth’s governor at the time of the imperial couple’s visit to Saipan.
“The emperor has come to that realization, and my shock has now turned to admiration,” said Babauta, who said he felt “very fortunate” to have had such a close encounter with the imperial couple when they conversed and ate lunch together during the visit.
“I felt that the emperor had wanted to visit Saipan for a long time. It was an opportunity for him to show to the world that the experience of war can be turned into something good in realizing that peace is paramount and that war should never happen again,” he said.
“He did that by praying for and paying his respects to the war dead, not just for the Japanese soldiers that were killed, but for the dead Americans, the natives of Saipan and (with a) brief prayer at the Korean memorial,” he added.
The imperial couple’s Saipan visit was their first overseas trip with the sole purpose of paying respects to those who perished during the war. It coincided with the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.
Emperor Akihito, then 71, and Empress Michiko, 70, visited and offered prayers in silence at what are now known as the Monument of the War Dead in the Mid-Pacific, the Banzai Cliff, the Suicide Cliff, the Okinawa memorial, the Korean Peace Memorial, the American WWII Memorial and the Marianas Memorial.
Diego Benavente, Babauta’s deputy at the time of the historic visit, shared that the sincerity of the couple in offering prayers at the war memorial sites “was felt by the local people.”
“The emperor was genuine,” the 60-year-old Benavente said in a separate interview, adding, “I know the visit was really not just about making peace with the people of the commonwealth, but making peace (with) everybody because of the war.”
A former journalist for the now-defunct Pacific Times newspaper, Ulysses Sabuco, 42, had goosebumps recalling his coverage of that event, which, he said had been his “most meaningful” throughout his career in the media.
“I covered the Korean memorial and the American memorial stops (by the imperial couple). It was my first experience to cover a royal family. The most striking, and for me (what) was beyond words, was when they bowed at the Korean war memorial,” said Sabuco, who is now engaged in consultancy and public relations work on the island.
The imperial couple’s visit to the Korean war memorial, located along the same stretch as the Okinawa memorial, drew attention at the time because it came following a denial by the Japanese government of plans for such a visit, and amid reports of a planned protest action by some Koreans on the island.
“I saw them walk by, passing through well-wishers. But they were very quiet, very still. You could feel, you could sense the enormity, the depth of how he mourns, how he respects. It’s beyond the meaning of being sorry, of being apologetic,” Sabuco, who is a Filipino national, said of the imperial couple.
Kim Seung Baeg, president of an association of Korean residents in Saipan at the time of the visit, admitted in an interview that Japan’s formal apology for its wartime atrocities against various nations, including South Korea, was something many had hoped for at the time.
While he appreciated the stopover of the imperial couple at the Korean memorial and their offer of prayers, Kim views that as only a “personal” expression of apology. “He did not go there to express apology (on) behalf of Japan as a nation, and of the Japanese government,” said Kim.
But Byung Sin, 65, an incumbent board member of the Korean Community of Saipan, was “very happy” with the former emperor’s decision “to visit Saipan and the Korean war memorial because it’s a form of apologizing already.”
The former emperor’s father, Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, was the Japanese armed forces’ commander-in-chief during the war, and the Japanese people at the time fought and died in his name.
Kim, Sin and Neung Sik Chang, current president of the association, said they do not care about the change in Japan’s imperial throne because of its mere symbolic nature. “We want something from the Cabinet” including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sin said.
But just the same, Chang expressed hope that Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the throne on May 1, will continue with the efforts of his father and even do more to resolve wartime issues between Japan and other Asian nations.
David Sablan, who headed the commonwealth’s tourism agency at the time of the imperial couple’s visit, recalled how thankful he was that the reported planned protest action by some Koreans did not materialize, as he was primarily tasked then “to see to it that everything ran smoothly.”
“The emperor, needless to say, is the head of Japan. And we had great respect for the emperor. And we were not going to do anything that would derogate the feeling toward Japan,” Sablan, 87, said.
“How can you go against someone who comes here to visit you to express his feeling about after the war, about the dead people — not only the Japanese, but the Chamorros, and the Americans and the Koreans as well?” he said.
Summing up the message of the 2005 Saipan visit, Babauta, the former governor, said, “The emperor wanted to see that peace will forever prevail over adversity.”