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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 13:21 EDT

Japan’s emperor to pray for WW2 dead on Saipan

June 27, 2005

By Linda Sieg

SAIPAN (Reuters) – Japanese Emperor Akihito was to head forthe U.S. territory of Saipan on Monday to mourn those who diedin World War II, 60 years after the end of a conflict thatstill haunts his country’s ties with its Asian neighbors.

The journey, the first by Akihito outside Japan to pray forwar dead, coincides with a chill in Tokyo’s relations withChina and South Korea, where many feel Japan has not owned upto the misery caused by its past military aggression.

Elderly Japanese veterans are pleased that Akihito, 71, sonof the late Emperor Hirohito in whose name their comradesfought and died, is making the journey.

“Those who fought then were soldiers of the emperor, andthey and we who remain are happy that he is coming to comforttheir souls,” said Seiichi Oike, 87, one of only about 2,000Japanese who survived the bloody 24-day Battle of Saipan in1944.

Saipan, considered vital to Japan’s homeland defense at thetime, was the site of fierce fighting from June 15 to July 9,1944. U.S. forces wanted the island as a base from which itsnew B-29 bombers could strike Tokyo, about 2,000 km (1,200miles) to the north.

About 43,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 Japanesecivilians died in more than three weeks of fierce fighting.

Hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians — men, women,and children — committed suicide rather than surrender inshame.

Nearly 3,500 Americans died on Saipan, along with some 900native islanders, including infants and elderly.

Some residents of the island, where older people stillrecall the days of Japanese rule when they were taught torevere Hirohito as a god, were less than enthusiastic about theroyal visit.

“I think I’m indifferent,” said Margarita Wonenberg, anative of Saipan whose father worked for his keep — but no pay– in the sugarcane fields when the island was under Japan’scontrol.

“I think they’re coming for their own purpose.”

Japanese officials have stressed that Akihito, 71, andEmpress Michiko, 70, will mourn all those who lost their livesin the Pacific conflict, whatever their nationality.

JUDGING THE PAST

Whether that message will get across and ease theimpression that Japan glosses over its own past atrocitiesremains in doubt.

In a sign that history still rankles, Korean residents ofSaipan had asked that the emperor visit a memorial on theisland to their compatriots who lost their lives in the war.

“I don’t think that Japan has been really, from what Iunderstand, accurate in their depiction of the war,” saidWonenberg’s husband, Barry, a 15-year resident of Saipan whoteaches at the local Northern Marianas College.

“I think that’s what angers a lot of people — this notionthat they pasteurise it for their own people,” he said.

The royal couple will visit memorials dedicated to Americanand local war dead as well as Japanese.

Among the sites are two rocky heights, now known as BanzaiCliff and Suicide Cliff, where Japanese civilians and soldierscommitted mass suicide.

Resigned to defeat after three weeks of fighting, theJapanese commander, Lt. General Yoshitsugu Saito, ordered histroops to make a final, suicidal attack on July 7.

He then commited ritual suicide himself.

Following the doomed Japanese assault, Japanese soldiersand civilians fled to Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff, wheremany leapt to their deaths, in some cases mothers clutchingchildren.

Japanese before the war had been taught a nationalistideology that made it a virtue to die for the sake of anemperor worshipped as a living god. Propaganda about certainrape and torture if taken prisoner by Americans was alsocommon.

Veteran Oike, who was wounded and rescued by an Americansoldier, said one should not judge the actions of the past bythe mores of the present.

“They were taught that it was better to die than be takenprisoner,” he said. “If you think of it now, it seems amistake, but you can’t judge them by the way things are now.”

The huge loss of life seen on Saipan was repeated on IwoJima and Okinawa the following year and helped persuade theUnited States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inAugust 1945, prompting Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Both bombers took off from the nearby island of Tinian.