The 73rd anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II marks the last one under Emperor Akihito, whose abdication next April will officially end his reign and the Heisei Era. The fact that Emperor Akihito, who in 1989 became the first emperor to ascend the throne as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” under the postwar Constitution, is stepping down soon due to his advanced age testifies to the lengthy time that has passed since the end of the war.
The Showa Era of his late father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, witnessed the turbulence that Japan experienced during its 64-year period — from its rush into war and its devastating defeat in 1945 to the postwar reconstruction and development under the war-renouncing Constitution.
As the subsequent Heisei Era is set to wrap up next year, memories of the last war that Japan fought and lost — which left 3.1 million Japanese dead — may be fading fast for a large majority of the nation’s citizens. The number of bereaved families of the war dead taking part in the government-organized annual Aug. 15 ceremony to mourn for those who died in the war is declining each year. Today, the number of people born after the war has topped 100 million, accounting for more than 80 percent of the population.
Meanwhile, one of the duties that Emperor Akihito has apparently imposed on himself as the “symbol of the state” is his series of visits over the years to places, both in Japan and abroad, that were the sites of fierce battles and devastation during the war — including Iwojima in 1994, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa in 1995, Saipan in 2005, Peleliu Island in Palau in 2015 and to the Philippines in 2016.
According to people close to him, his visits to these sites were intended to pray for the souls of all the people who died in the war — not just the Japanese — and to keep the memories of the war from fading away.
Most Japanese now lack firsthand experience of the war, and with the passage of times it will become increasingly difficult for us to keep the memories of the war alive and to pass them on to future generations. The 15th of August should be a day for each and every one of us to think what we can do to remember the war that ended 73 years ago and what it tells us as we go forward.
“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated. Together with all of our people, I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefields and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country,” the Emperor said in his address to the Aug. 15, 2015, Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII — a message that he essentially repeated in the two past years.
Praying for the people who lost their lives in the war has indeed been a key purpose of the trips that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made over the span of his reign to the sites of fierce battles involving Japanese forces in the Pacific War.
Since their days as crown prince and princess, the Imperial couple has visited Okinawa — which experienced fierce ground battles that killed large numbers of civilians in the closing days of the war and came under extended U.S. military rules in the postwar decades — a total of 11 times, the latest in March this year that took place reportedly based on their strong wishes.
Yutaka Kawashima, a former grand chamberlain who served the Emperor as a top aide, says the trips that Emperor Akihito made to these places — to mourn for the dead and reflect on the sorrow of the families who lost them — carry the message that the war must not be forgotten.
In his August 2015 statement marking the 70th year after the end of the war, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “We Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.”
It is indeed an obligation for each of us to not forget our last war and to think what needs to be done so that the folly of war will not be repeated in the future.
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