Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in Manila on Jan. 26, a visit realized only seven months after Philippine President Benigno Aquino invited the Imperial Couple to his country during his stay in Japan.
The swift reciprocal visit by the Imperial Couple not only came about to promote friendship and goodwill on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties but also out of the Emperor's ardent wishes for consoling the souls of the war dead in a country that became one of the fiercest battlefields during World War II. It is also the first visit by a reigning Japanese emperor to the Philippines.
On June 3 last year, President Aquino, who was visiting Japan as a state guest, asked the Imperial Couple to visit the Philippines when he met them at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The Emperor thanked Aquino, saying, "I appreciate your thoughtfulness. My visits overseas are a matter considered by the government." In response, Aquino said he would ask Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about the matter.
At an Imperial banquet hosting President Aquino later that evening, the Emperor referred to the damage suffered by the Philippines during the Pacific War, saying, "During World War II, however, fierce battles between Japan and the United States took place on Philippine soil, resulting in the loss of many Filipino lives. This is something we Japanese must long remember with a profound sense of remorse. In particular, in this year of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I offer my deepest condolences to all those who lost their lives then."
While the then-presidents of the Philippines attended Imperial banquets in March 1993 and December 2002, the June 2015 banquet marked the first time for the Emperor to refer to the war.
The Emperor has continued to visit former battlefields and bombed cities both at home and abroad to pay respects to those who perished in the Pacific War, starting with a visit to Iwo Jima in 1994, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1995, Saipan in 2005 and the Republic of Palau in 2015. In the Philippines, 518,000 Japanese lost their lives, accounting for about one-fifth of Japanese nationals who died overseas during the war. Many Filipinos were also embroiled in the Japan-U.S. war, resulting in the death of over 1 million people.
According to a senior official with the Imperial Household Agency, the Emperor has harbored strong wishes to console the souls of the war dead regardless of their nationality. His homage to the war dead was to culminate in the offering of flowers at a memorial for the Japanese war dead erected by the Japanese government in the Philippines and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating Filipino victims, during his visit to the Southeast Asian country.
As the Imperial Couple's visit to the Philippines is primarily aimed at promoting friendly ties and goodwill between the two countries, the Imperial Household Agency took special care not to overly feature the honoring of Japanese war victims during the Imperial Couple's trip. That is why the offering of flowers to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was set for Jan. 27, the same day as their meeting with the Philippine president and an ensuing banquet, and the offering of flowers to the Japanese war dead in the Philippines is scheduled for Jan. 29, the day before their return to Tokyo. "We avoided setting their visit for honoring Japanese war victims in the middle of the itinerary but set it rather toward the end of the trip," confided a senior Imperial Household Agency official.
It was also the Emperor's first trip overseas in the month of January since he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, as January is a busy month for the Imperial Family with many traditional events. Nevertheless, the Imperial Couple's visit to the Philippines was set in January because President Aquino's term is due to expire in June and presidential campaigns are set to start in February. "It was appropriate to visit the Philippines before the country gets caught up with busy events," said a high-ranking Imperial Household Agency official.
In the aftermath of the tremendous damage inflicted during the Pacific War, Filipino citizens long harbored strong anti-Japanese sentiments, and bilateral talks over Japan's reparations to the Philippines ran into rough waters. Under the reparation agreement that finally took effect in 1956, Japan's compensation to the Philippines amounted to 550 million dollars (198 billion yen at the currency rate at the time), far surpassing the combined compensation amounts for Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam at 462 million dollars (166.3 billion yen).
Six decades on, Japan is now the largest trading partner for the Philippines. Roughly 1,500 Japanese companies were operating in the Philippines as of October 2014, while 217,000 Filipinos are living in Japan -- the third largest figure following Chinese and Korean counterparts.
In a BBC opinion poll taken in 2011, 84 percent of people in the Philippines view Japanese positively. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs regards the Philippines as one of the most pro-Japanese countries in the world.
The Philippines has recently been plagued by unstable relations with surrounding countries, such as a fierce sovereignty row with China over the Spratly Islands. Shinzo Hayase, professor at Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, noted, "Considering international affairs, it is natural for the Philippines to adopt a pro-Japanese stance." Hayase emphasized the importance of grassroots exchanges as he learned from his visit to the country and interaction with Filipino students in Japan that "The terrible memory of the war has been passed down to younger generations." He continued, "It is a shame that Japanese people are ignorant about such history. I hope the Imperial Couple's visit will provide the opportunity for us Japanese to reflect upon that history and strengthen bilateral friendly ties."