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Emperor, empress to visit Okinawa in March to pay tribute to war dead

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (Mainichi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko plan to visit Okinawa in March to pay tribute to those who died in the fierce ground battle there during World War II, a source close to the Imperial Household Agency said Friday.

    During the three-day trip from March 27, the imperial couple are expected to visit Japan's westernmost island of Yonaguni for the first time, in addition to Okinawa's main island.

    The trip is being arranged as the imperial couple strongly desire to revisit Okinawa ahead of the 84-year-old emperor's planned abdication in April 2019, the source said.

    It would be their 11th trip to Okinawa, including visits the couple made as crown prince and crown princess. They last visited the southern island prefecture in June 2014 in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 1945.

    The emperor and empress have long felt sympathy for Okinawa, where around a quarter of local residents died in a three-month ground battle. The total death toll from the battle exceeded 200,000, including Americans.

    Okinawa was occupied by the United States after the war, reverting to Japanese control in May 1972. Resentment still runs deep over the continuing burden on the prefecture from hosting the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.

    The source said the emperor and empress will fly to Okinawa's main island and visit the National War Dead Peace Mausoleum in the city of Itoman on March 27 to pay respects to the war dead.

    After staying overnight in the prefectural capital Naha, they are expected to make a one-day trip to Yonaguni Island to visit a stone monument marking Japan's westernmost point and to fly back to Tokyo on the third day.

    Complex emotions swirled among Okinawans after the war.

    During the couple's first trip to the prefecture in July 1975, three years after the reversion to Japanese control, activists threw a firebomb when the couple visited the Himeyuri war memorial in the southern part of the Okinawa battlefield.

    The then-crown prince issued a statement saying, "I deeply reflect on wounds of prefecture residents from the Battle of Okinawa."

    After ascending to the throne in 1989, he visited Okinawa in April 1993 to attend a national tree-planting ceremony, becoming the first Japanese emperor to visit the prefecture.

    The emperor and empress observe a silent prayer every year on four war-related dates -- June 23, when the Battle of Okinawa ended, Aug. 6, when the first U.S. atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Aug. 9, the day of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and Aug. 15, when the current emperor's father, Emperor Hirohito, told the nation over the radio of the end of the war, according to agency officials. The couple view them as "four days that should never be forgotten," they said.

    The emperor and empress, 83, have traveled to former battlefields to sooth some of the wounds of the war as well as to disaster-hit areas to console victims.

    The agency is considering arranging more trips for such purposes before the emperor's abdication, the source said.

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