Editorial: Visit by Japanese emperor to Philippines marks milestone for reflecting on World War II

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have visited the Philippines for the first time as Japanese emperor and empress to mark the 60th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two nations.

The visit was realized due to the emperor’s desire to travel to this site of fierce battlefields during World War II and console the spirits of those who lost their lives at the time. This visit is also an important milestone for post-war Japan, a country which has enshrined the idea of pacifism in its constitution. Closer ties between Japan and the Philippines are eagerly desired.

The visit by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to the Philippines was made possible when Philippine President Benigno Aquino attended a banquet at the Imperial Palace last June and extended an invitation for them to visit the Philippines. At the banquet, Emperor Akihito said that fierce fighting between Japan and the United States took place in the Philippines during World War II and resulted in the loss of many Filipino lives.

At two previous banquets for Philippine presidents, the emperor had not made comments about the war. Thus, the emperor’s remarks at the banquet for President Aquino conveyed his strong desire that the Japanese people not forget this tragic past in the year that marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

Sharing and passing on such experiences of the war to younger generations, memories that are fading and risk becoming forgotten as time passes, is a challenge we must meet.

The Philippines was once a major battlefield for the Imperial Japanese Army, which followed a policy of advancing toward the south under the vision of the “Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” Key battles were fought against American troops, claiming the lives of 518,000 Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, from the vantage point of the Philippines, the war devastated its territory and brought about the deaths of 1.1 million Filipinos, according to an estimate made by the Philippine government.

Prior to the visit, Emperor Akihito delivered a message that said, “An enormous number of innocent Filipinos lost their lives during the war.” This comment reflects the fighting that broke out in Japan-occupied Manila, the Philippine capital, from February to March 1945, in which 100,000 civilians perished.

As seen in that event, modern warfare perpetually involved civilians and eventually led to the tragedy of the indiscriminate attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. These past tragedies must never be repeated. In particular, people of a nation that inflicted the damage of war must not forget their country’s negative legacy.

After the war, the Philippines endured an era of hardship. Despite this, then Philippine President Elpidio Quirino granted pardons to 108 Japanese officers and soldiers, who were captured and accused of war crimes, and helped them return to Japan. President Quirino’s wise judgment during this time, when no diplomatic ties existed with Japan, laid the groundwork for the current relations between the two countries.

Japan is now the largest trading partner for the Philippines, and its major provider of aid. About 200,000 Filipinos live in Japan and send financial support to family members or relatives in the Philippines, producing substantial economic impact there. This could reflect a shift in that nation from anti-Japanese sentiments to a more favorable view. But Japan should not just rely on the generosity of the Philippines and forget what it did to Filipinos during the war. Let us take the emperor’s visit as an opportunity to freshly ponder post-war relations between Japan and the Philippines.

In Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, though there had been long-running conflict between government forces and the armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a comprehensive peace agreement was finally reached and the declaration was then adopted in Hiroshima. When President Aquino visited Hiroshima two years ago, he said, “Policymakers should not forget what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When a mistaken path is chosen, innocent people are sacrificed.”

Emperor Akihito again referred to Filipino war victims in remarks he made yesterday at a banquet. His comments are highly significant. Moreover, it was striking how he mentioned the name José Rizal, a hero of the movement which sought the independence of the Philippines from Spain, and described Rizal as someone able to motivate others through the written word, not armed force.

Given international conditions that have grown increasingly tense, this visit offers us the chance to consider what Japan and the Philippines can do to help build stronger peace in the world.

(Originally published on January 28, 2016)