June 27, 2005

Japan emperor to pay tribute to WW2 dead on Saipan

By Linda Sieg

SAIPAN (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito headed for thesite of one of World War II's most decisive battles on Mondayto pay tribute to those who died in a conflict that stillhaunts Tokyo's ties with Asian neighbors, 60 years after itsend.

The journey to the U.S. territory of Saipan -- the first byAkihito outside Japan to mourn war dead -- coincides with achill in Tokyo's ties with China and South Korea, where manyfeel Japan has not owned up to its wartime atrocities.

"Sixty-one years ago today, a fierce battle was still beingfought on this island. Our hearts ache when we think of thosepeople who fought at a place where there was no food, no water,and no medical treatment for the wounded," Akihito said inremarks before he and Empress Michiko left Tokyo.

Akihito attends annual ceremonies to mark the Aug. 15anniversary of the war's end, and in 1995 he went to Hiroshima,Nagasaki and Japan's southern island of Okinawa to mourn wardead.

"This time, on soil beyond our shores, we will once againmourn and pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in thewar and we will remember the difficult path the bereavedfamilies had to follow, and we wish to pray for world peace,"he said.

Japanese veterans and families of war dead -- key supportgroups for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling party --are pleased that Akihito, 71, son of the late Emperor Hirohitoin whose name their comrades fought and died, is making thejourney.

"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, who was one of only about2,000 Japanese who survived the bloody 24-day Battle of Saipanin 1944.

Saipan, controlled by Japan after World War One andconsidered vital to Japan's homeland defense, was the site offierce fighting from June 15 to July 9, 1944.

U.S. forces wanted the island as a base from which its newB-29 bombers could strike Tokyo, about 2,000 km (1,200 miles)to the north.

Some 43,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 Japanese civiliansdied in more than three weeks of intense battle, according toJapanese figures, many committing suicide rather than surrenderin shame.

More than 5,000 Americans died in the battles for Saipanand nearby Tinian and the naval Battle of the Philippine Sea,along with some 900 native islanders, including infants andelderly.


Some natives of the island, where older people recall thedays of Japanese rule when they were taught to revere Hirohitoas a god, welcomed the royal visit. Others were lessenthusiastic.

"I think I'm indifferent," said Margarita Wonenberg, anative of Saipan whose father worked for his keep -- but no pay-- in 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, andMichiko, 70, will mourn all those who lost their lives in thePacific conflict, whatever their nationality.

But it remains to be seen whether that message will getacross.

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 tworocky heights, now known as Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff.

Following the ritual suicide of the Japanese commander, Lt.Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, and a doomed assault by his remainingtroops, Japanese soldiers and civilians fled to the two cliffs,where many, women and children included, leapt to their deaths.

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.

"If you think of it now, it seems a mistake, but you can'tjudge them by the way things are now," said veteran Oike, whowas wounded and rescued by an American soldier.

The huge loss of life was repeated on Iwo Jima and Okinawathe next year and helped persuade the United States to dropatomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945,prompting Japan's unconditional surrender.

The planes carrying both bombs took off Tinian.