June 28, 2005

Japan emperor visits Korean war memorial on Saipan

By Linda Sieg

SAIPAN (Reuters) - In a gesture of reconciliation, JapaneseEmperor Akihito made a surprise visit on Tuesday to a Koreanwar dead memorial during a pilgrimage to the island of Saipanwhere a decisive World War II battle was fought.

Akihito, on his first overseas trip to honor war dead, alsobowed his head in silent prayer at two rocky heights whereJapanese soldiers and civilians leapt to their deaths ratherthan surrender in shame.

The emperor's journey coincides with a chill in Japan'sties with China and South Korea, still tormented by the wartimepast 60 years later.

Korean residents of the U.S. territory of Saipan had askedthe emperor to pay his respects at their war memorial, butuntil Tuesday they had received no reply.

In the brief, unannounced visit, Akihito -- son of the lateEmperor Hirohito in whose name Japanese fought and died -- andEmpress Michiko bowed deeply before the Korean Peace Memorial.

"They went out of their own feeling," Japan's topgovernment spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference inTokyo.

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.

"We are excited and everybody is very happy," Jin Koo Cho,director of the Korean Association of Saipan, told Reutersafter learning of the royal couple's visit to the cenotaph.

"We really hope the Japanese emperor's visit to our Koreanmemorial can make relations between Korea and Japan better."

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 palace official told reporters that news mediawere not told in advance because of possible adverse reactions.

South Korean activists and a minority of local Koreanresidents had threatened protests against the emperor's visit,while Akihito's gesture could annoy Japanese nationalists.

Despite public apologies by Japan's leaders and past wordsof regret from Akihito himself, many in both South and NorthKorea -- a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945 -- as well as inChina feel Tokyo has not owned up to its wartime atrocities inAsia.

Seoul and Beijing are also outraged over Prime MinisterJunichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine,seen by critics as a symbol of past Japanese militarism.


On the same unscheduled stop, the emperor and empress alsopaid their respects at a memorial for war dead from Japan'ssouthern island of Okinawa who died on Saipan.

Akihito, 71, and Michiko, 70, earlier laid flowers at theMonument of War Dead in the Mid-Pacific, built by the Japanesegovernment in 1974 for war dead of all nationalities.

Later, as rain fell, the royal couple laid wreaths at a wardead memorial for natives of Saipan and at an AmericanMemorial.

Japanese-controlled Saipan, considered vital to Japan'shomeland defense, saw 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 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.

Hundreds, including women and children, plunged from thetwo steep heights, now known as Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff,to avoid capture.


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.

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 and on Iwo Jima and Okinawathe next year helped persuade the United States to drop atomicbombs -- from planes that flew from Tinian -- on Hiroshima andNagasaki in August 1945, prompting Japan's surrender.