June 28, 2005

Japan emperor honors Korean war dead 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 after the end of the conflict. Tuesday's visitwas the first time the emperor had paid respects at a Koreanwar memorial.

At the brief, unannounced stop, 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.

Korean residents of the U.S. territory of Saipan had askedthe emperor to pay his respects at their war memorial but hadreceived no reply.

"We are excited and everybody is very happy," Jin Koo Cho,director of the Korean Association of Saipan, said afterlearning 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."

In Seoul, Yang Soon-im, head of the Association for thePacific War Victims, told Reuters: "We understand the Japaneseking did not say anything at the memorial, but we take this asan expression of sincere apology from his heart.

"It is fortunate, although belated. Now it's time for theJapanese government and public to begin resolving the problemsone by one," she added.

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.

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 -- and in Chinafeel Tokyo has not owned up to its wartime atrocities in Asia.

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.


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 theirnew 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.

Japan's public has yet to forge a consensus about the war,but elderly Japanese veterans and relatives of war dead -- manyfirm supporters of Koizumi's ruling party -- were pleased thatthe royal couple made the pilgrimage abroad.

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.

Akihito left Saipan for Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon aftervisiting a day-care center for the elderly.

(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Teruaki Ueno inTokyo, and Jack Kim in Seoul)