Japan’s aging Emperor Akihito travels to the Philippines this week to visit World War II memorials, his latest pacifist pilgrimage which appears increasingly at odds with the government’s drift to the right.
Akihito, 82, has made honoring Japanese and non-Japanese who died in the conflict a touchstone of his near three-decade reign — known as Heisei, or “achieving peace” — and now in its twilight.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, wants to revise the nation’s U-imposed war-renouncing “peace constitution,” seeing it as an embarrassing remnant of its World War II defeat and occupation by the US.
In the Philippines, which saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, Akihito and Empress Michiko are to visit the national Heroes’ Cemetery and a memorial for Japanese war dead during a five-day visit starting today.
“The emperor has been very consistent with the fact that Japan is apologetic about their aggression,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
Such contrition, decades of Japanese economic aid and the Philippines’ search for allies in a maritime dispute with increasingly powerful China have made Abe’s nationalist lurch — which includes strengthening the military — palatable in Manila.
“We in the Philippines are OK with Japan becoming a normal power,” Heydarian said.
Akihito is strictly limited to a “symbol of the state” under Japan’s constitution imposed by Washington, which aimed to prevent any return to the militarism in the early reign of his father, Hirohito.
Abe last year pushed through legislation that under certain conditions could allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since 1945, passage which came amid protests and fears the nation could be dragged into conflict in support of its allies, particularly the US.
Despite constitutional restraints, the soft-spoken Akihito, 11 years old when the war ended in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is still seen as getting his point across about the importance of cherishing Japan’s post-war peace.
“He is the emperor so he really can’t speak from a political standpoint,” said Fumiko Imagawa, who went to the Imperial Palace early this month to hear Akihito’s brief annual New Year’s message. “His own thoughts are conveyed in each word.”
Akihito has previously journeyed to other Pacific battle sites where Japanese troops and civilians made desperate last stands in his father’s name. On visits to Saipan in 2005 and Palau last year, he prayed not just for the Japanese soldiers and civilians who perished, but also colonial subjects such as Koreans and troops from the nation’s wartime enemy, the US.
In remarks in August last year at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, Akihito expressed “profound remorse” for the war fought in his father’s name, reportedly the first time he had used those words at the annual event.
Author Masayasu Hosaka says Akihito has become clearer in his pacifist comments in the past few years.
“The reason is perhaps that in reflecting on his life he is looking back on what he should have done as emperor, seeing if there are things he has not spoken enough about or words he wants to leave behind,” Hosaka wrote in his latest book.
To be sure, “peace” and “remorse” are words Abe himself utters, and in August last year as the world watched he said Japan would stand by previous war apologies, but other comments and actions, including having prevaricated over whether Japan’s wartime aggression amounted to “invasion” and his 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are sanctified, have raised questions about his sincerity.
Last month, his ruling party launched a group to review modern history amid reports it would consider issues including the 1937-1938 Nanjing Massacre, which Tokyo is accused of playing down.
By stark contrast, early last year Akihito said Japanese should “study and learn from the history” of the war “as we consider the future direction of our country.”
Heydarian said history weighs less heavily on Filipinos, while the government does not “peddle this narrative of historical victimhood,” alluding to China, where sentiment remains bitter.
Sonny Sanchez, a retired businessman, agreed that his compatriots are not the type to hold grudges, but he also pointed to Japanese natural disaster aid and support for Manila in its dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.
“I love the emperor and his family,” he said after watching the New Year’s greeting on a trip to Tokyo with his wife and sons. “That’s why we came here, just to take a glimpse of him for a few seconds.”
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