June 27, 2005

Japan emperor on Saipan to mourn WW2 dead

By Linda Sieg

SAIPAN (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito began apilgrimage to the site of one of World War II's most decisivebattles on Monday to pay tribute to those who died in aconflict that still haunts Tokyo's ties with Asian neighbors,60 years after its end.

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 beforehe and Empress Michiko left Tokyo.

Akihito attends annual ceremonies to mark the Aug. 15anniversary of the war's end, and in 1995 he paid respects atwar memorials in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Japan'ssouthern island of Okinawa to mourn war dead.

"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.

A black-suited Akihito and Michiko, wearing a flowing whitedress, later met with about 40 members of Japanese veterans'and war bereaved groups, listening carefully, nodding andcommenting as they related their wartime experiences.

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 Japan's mainland 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 committed 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 they're coming for their own purpose," saidMargarita Wonenberg, a native of Saipan whose father worked forhis keep -- but no pay -- in sugarcane fields when the islandwas under Japan's control.

Japanese officials have stressed that Akihito and Michikowill mourn all those who lost their lives in the Pacificconflict, whatever their nationality.

Whether the message gets across remains to be seen.

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.

About 1,000 Korean laborers were brought to Saipan againsttheir will while it was held by Japan.

"They say they have their memorial but it's for everyonewho died in World War II regardless of nationality," Jin KooCho, director of the Korean Association of Saipan, toldReuters.

"But we asked them to show respect for Koreans in our way,not their way."

The royal couple on Tuesday will visit memorials dedicatedto American and local war dead as well as Japanese.

Among the sites are two rocky heights, now known as BanzaiCliff and Suicide Cliff, where Japanese soldiers and civilians-- 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 from Tinian.