MANILA, Jan 27 – Japan’s Emperor Akihito will on Wednesday visit a cemetery for tens of thousands of Filipino World War II dead, as he uses a historic visit to the Philippines to promote his pacifist agenda.
The soft-smiling Akihito, 82, and his wife, Empress Michiko, are on a five-day trip to the Philippines to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic ties, but also to honour those who died during Japan’s brutal occupation of the Philippines.
“In the Philippines, many lives of Filipinos, Americans and Japanese were lost during the war,” Akihito said before arriving on Tuesday.
Akihito specifically noted the battle for the liberation of Manila in 1945, where an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
“We’d like to conduct our visit by always keeping this in mind,” said Akihito, who offered a slight bow as soon as he alighted from his plane at Manila airport.
Akihito’s visit is the first by a Japanese emperor to the Philippines and comes as the two countries fortify economic and defence ties, partly in an effort to counter China’s increasingly assertive actions in disputed regional waters.
He officially launched his visit on Wednesday morning with a red-carpet welcome ceremony at the presidential palace hosted by President Benigno Aquino.
In the afternoon, he is due to visit the sprawling Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) in Manila, which was built in 1947 to honour Filipino soldiers who died during World War II.
An estimated 100,000 people died during the month-long campaign to liberate Manila in 1945, which saw aerial bombings and gunfire flatten the city.
Tens of thousands also died in an excruciating 100-kilometre (65-mile) march from a Filipino military stronghold in Bataan province to Japanese concentration camps.
The other key symbolic event on Akihito’s agenda will be a visit on Friday to a shrine for Japanese casualties of the war in Caliraya, a lake resort village about three hours’ drive south of Manila.
Akihito has previously journeyed to other Pacific battle sites where Japanese troops and civilians made desperate last stands in the name of his father, Hirohito.
– Improving image –
Akihito’s remorse over the war helps to improve Japan’s international image, counter-balancing his government’s more nationalist bent, according to Manila-based political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian.
“The emperor will serve as the apologetic, sincere face of Japan… it will balance out his government’s controversial, pugnacious and seemingly revisionist statements,” he said.
Conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe angered China and South Korea when he marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender last year by saying that future generations should not apologise for the war.
Abe is also looking to revise Japan’s war-renouncing “peace constitution”, which he sees as an embarrassing remnant of its WWII defeat and occupation by the United States.
But while his nationalistic push has caused friction with many of Japan’s neighbours, the Philippines has taken a softer stance with its biggest donor of development aid and top trading partner.
On the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said Japan had “acted with compassion” since the war, which led to the two nations rebuilding a “strong friendship”.
However, there are still vocal critics who believe Japan has not done enough to atone for wartime atrocities, particularly the forcing of local women into sexual slavery.
About 200 people, including seven of the “comfort women”, held a protest near the presidential palace on Wednesday morning to demand justice for the sex slaves.
“To the emperor of Japan, talk to your leader about Filipina grandmothers who are fighting for their rights,” one of the former sex slaves, Narcisa Claveria, 85, said over a megaphone.
The women have long demanded from Japan a formal apology, compensation and inclusion of the atrocities in Japanese history books.