June 28, 2005

Japan emperor makes surprise stop at Korea memorial

By Linda Sieg

SAIPAN (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito, on apilgrimage to the U.S. territory of Saipan where a decisiveWorld War II battle was fought, abruptly changed his officialschedule on Tuesday to visit a memorial to Koreans who died inthe war.

Akihito's journey, his first trip outside Japan to payrespects to war dead, coincides with a deterioration in Japan'sties with China and South Korea, still tormented by the wartimepast 60 years later.

Korean residents of Saipan had asked the emperor to visitthe memorial to their fallen compatriots, but until Tuesdaythey had received no reply.

About 1,000 Korean laborers were brought to the islandagainst their will during the 1930s, joining thousands ofJapanese workers relocated there after World War One.

Most Koreans left on the island when World War II endedwere repatriated to the Korean peninsula, and the 2,500 Koreansnow living on Saipan mostly came during the past 30 years.

A Japanese Imperial Household Agency official said the newsmedia were not told in advance of the emperor's decision tovisit the Korean cenotaph because of a possible security risk.

"It was a choice between taking a risk and not notifying(media). We decided not take a risk," he told reporters.

Many South Koreans still resent Japan's often brutal1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula, and a meetingof the two countries' leaders last week failed to thaw therecent diplomatic chill.

Despite public apologies by Japan's leaders and words ofregret from Akihito himself, many in those countries feel Japanhas not atoned enough for its wartime atrocities in Asia.

They are especially outraged over Prime Minister JunichiroKoizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, seen bycritics as a symbol of past Japanese militarism.

Japanese officials have stressed that Akihito -- son of thelate Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japanese fought and died-- is paying his respects to war dead of all nationalities.

In another unscheduled stop on Tuesday, the emperor visiteda memorial for war dead from Japan's southern island of Okinawawho died on Saipan.

Before visiting the two smaller private memorials, Akihitolaid flowers at the Monument of War Dead in the Mid-Pacific,built by the Japanese government in 1974 to honor all who diedin the conflict.

He also offered silent prayers at two rocky heights, knownas Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff, where many Japanese soldiersand civilians leapt to their deaths rather than surrender inshame.

The emperor was scheduled later to lay flowers at amemorial for natives of Saipan who died in the battle and at anAmerican Memorial, where 26 granite plates are inscribed withthe names of Marines, Army and Navy personnel who were killed.

Saipan, controlled by Japan after World War One andconsidered vital to Japan's homeland defense, saw fiercefighting 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.

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 43,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 Japanese civiliansdied in the intense fighting, according to Japanese figures.


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.

"They had to fight for Japan, for their families. That ishow they were educated and they were not afraid of death," saidTai Watanabe, 78, whose brother died in fighting on Guam andwho himself had been trained to die as a "kamikaze" pilot.

Akihito attends annual ceremonies in Japan on the Aug. 15anniversary of the war's end, and 10 years ago he visitedmemorials in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa.

But elderly Japanese veterans and relatives of war dead --many firm supporters of Koizumi's ruling party -- are pleasedthat the royal couple is making the pilgrimage abroad.

Katsuya Ogawa, 62, whose father died on Saipan, took partin an audience with the emperor on Monday. "Sixty years havepassed since the end of the war and while there are peopleopposed to the emperor's visit...we are warmly grateful," Ogawasaid.

The huge loss of life on Saipan was repeated on Iwo Jimaand Okinawa the next year and helped persuade the United Statesto drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945,prompting Japan's unconditional surrender.

The planes carrying both bombs took off from nearby Tinian.