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Editorial: Emperor Akihito shows the way in expressing sorrow for the war dead

Aug. 15, 2018 was the Heisei era's final commemoration of World War II's end, as Emperor Akihito made his last appearance at the ceremony dedicated to the war dead before he abdicates next spring. The addresses he made at the event over the last three decades have remembered the fallen in ways reflective of the zeitgeist.

From the postwar portion of the Showa era to the Heisei era beginning in 1989, the emperor's words at these events have evolved. The volume of text has doubled, and expressions have turned softer and become more inclusive of the people's feelings.

Eulogies given by Emperor Hirohito (know posthumously as Emperor Showa) used staid language even when he was expressing his feeling of pain over the war dead. Although he began to use terms designed to sound more polite and closer to listeners, the text was fixed for years.

Emperor Akihito, since his ascension to the Imperial Throne in 1989, started to pay homage to those killed in battle in ways considerate of the sentiment of each and every citizen. The addresses were polished by the Emperor himself every year with subtle adjustments here and there. But they always shared the sense of sorrow with people.

When remembering times of war, it is essential to keep a sense of deep sorrow at the core of one's perception. This realization emerges from reading the Emperor's repeated prayer-like expressions of sorrow.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, stopped referring to Japan's wartime responsibility for causing harm or "remorse" in the 2013 memorial, after returning to power the previous year.

The Emperor began to touch on "deep remorse" in his address in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the war's end. This must be because of the sorrow he has as someone who has said time and again that his wartime experience is at the bottom of his being.

The Emperor remembers the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident that sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War, when he was just 3. At age 11, he stood in the middle of his scorched homeland devastated by a lost war. "I grew up without knowing a time when a war was not being fought," he told a press conference on the 10th anniversary of his ascension. He belongs to the last generation that experienced the war.

The sense of duty that he must convey the sorrow he felt personally during the war has supported the Emperor's 30 years of effort. His easy-to-understand words have come to carry substantial weight because of his actions. The Emperor, along with Empress Michiko, has always paid special respect to Okinawa, where a fierce land battle was fought during the war. Even in old age, the Imperial Couple continue to tour old battlefields abroad to console the souls of the fallen. His words correspond to his deeds.

And such words and actions are the expression of a new way of being as the symbol of the unity of the people, which he kindly explained two years ago when he revealed his apparent wish to abdicate.

From next year, the Crown Prince, who will ascend to the throne, will make the address at the memorial to the war dead. We would like to pass on to the next generation the mindset the Emperor and the people have come to share during the Heisei era in dedicating prayers to the fallen.

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