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Symbol of the State: Emperor's trips to console souls of war dead symbolize Heisei era

Emperor Akihito, right, and Empress Michiko offer a silent prayer on the so-called Banzai Cliff, where many Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths toward the end of the Battle of Saipan, on June 28, 2005. (Pool photo)

Emperor Akihito, who is to abdicate in April 2019, turns 85 on Dec. 23 his last birthday as emperor. His activities with Empress Michiko in pursuit of his role as the symbol of the state include consolation of the souls of the war dead and visits to disaster-hit areas. He is also strongly interested in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture.

Junichiro Shoji (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun interviewed people who were deeply involved in these activities by the Emperor.

The following are the excerpts of an interview with Junichiro Shoji, fellow, the National Institute for Defense Studies

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Q: You have explained the history of warfare to Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress before the Imperial Couple traveled overseas to console the spirits of the war dead. The first time you did so was on June 15 and 22, 2005, shortly before the Imperial Couple visited Saipan to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

A: I sat with the Imperial Couple across a table in the reception room of their residence and explained the process of Japan's rule of the island and circumstances surrounding a battle there. I was supposed to meet Their Majesties for 30 minutes each time. However, as they asked me many questions, my meeting with the Imperial Couple surpassed an hour on both occasions.

The location for the Emperor's wartime evacuation was changed from Numazu (in the central Japan prefecture of Shizuoka) to Nikko (in the eastern Japan prefecture of Tochigi) because there was a growing danger of Numazu being attacked by U.S. submarines following the fall of Saipan. Therefore, the Emperor may have a strong impression of Saipan. I felt he was eager to learn about the facts about the war judging from his questions. Through his experiences of the war, His Majesty has strong awareness that he must not forget the history. I think that such feelings led him to take trips to console the spirits of the war dead.

Q: Their Majesties offered prayers in front of the cenotaphs for those from Okinawa and the Korean Peninsula in Saipan, although it was not initially planned, in addition to those for Japanese people and local residents.

A: In Saipan, not only Japanese and U.S. soldiers but also many civilians were killed in the war. About 80 percent of Japanese civilian victims are those from Okinawa Prefecture, and many civilian employees of Japanese forces from the Korean Peninsula also lost their lives.

The Emperor said he prayed for the repose of the souls of all involved in the battle. I feel that His Majesty thinks about all war victims and sympathizes with them regardless of their nationalities and whether they are servicemen or civilians.

Q: You visited Their Majesties' residence before they visited Peleliu, Palau, in 2015, which marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

A: His Majesty was interested in the details of the battle. On Peleliu Island, few civilians were killed. Instead, Japanese and U.S. elite units had a fierce battle on the island. Peleliu is in sharp contrast with Saipan in terms of the sacrifice of civilians. Peleliu has been called a forgotten battlefield because few Japanese soldiers returned alive from the island. Their Majesties were thankful for local people who made extra efforts to clean up the cenotaphs and collect victims' remains. Peleliu now draws attention from the public because of the visit by Their Majesties, and many Japanese people now know of the island.

Q: Before leaving for the Philippines in 2016 on his last trip to console the spirits of war victims, His Majesty mentioned the Battle of Manila (February-March 1945) between Japan and the United States, which left some 100,000 people dead.

A: Since he mentioned the urban warfare that few Japanese people know in detail, I felt his determination to make the visit a culmination of his trips to console the spirits of the war dead. I took his remark as a message to the public.

I think His Majesty's trips to console the souls of the war dead symbolize the Heisei era. I feel that he carried out his activities, including a visit to Okinawa, which Emperor Showa was unable to achieve, partly because he has tried to shoulder what had happened in the previous generation. His Majesty's activities are called "Heisei-style" activities, including his visits to disaster-hit areas. I think these activities have taken root because of the way he visited various areas to console the spirits of the war dead.

**

Emperor Akihito has visited various areas in Japan and overseas to pay respects to war victims. The Emperor and Empress visited Iwojima Island in Ogasawara, south of Tokyo, in 1994. In 1995, which marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, he visited Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Okinawa prefectures in western and southern Japan as well as the Tokyo Memorial Hall where the remains of the victims of the Great Tokyo Air Raids in 1945 toward the end of the war are enshrined.

The Emperor visited Saipan, where a fierce battle in the Pacific War was fought, in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the war's end, and traveled to Peleliu, Palau, in 2015. His visit to the Philippines in 2016 was his last trip to console the souls of war victims.

At a news conference in 1999, Emperor Akihito said of war victims, "Because of the war, soldiers who fought bravely for their countries and countless other people who lived in the areas where the war extended lost their lives. I feel an acute sense of sorrow and grief for them."

(Japanese original interview by Hiroyuki Takashima, City News Department)

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