Emperor Hirohito never made it to Okinawa. He passed away before he could fulfill that stated desire. (He was scheduled to go in 1987, until illness intervened.) Okinawa was the scene of some of the most savage fighting of the Pacific War: 100-200,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians died there in April-June 1945, as well as 14,000 Americans.
The Okinawan or Ryukyu Islands were annexed by Japan in 1872 during the reign of Hirohito’s grandfather, the Emperor Meiji. Ever since, the islands’ ethnically distinct people have remained stuck at the bottom of Japan’s socio-economic ladder; Okinawans endured disproportionately heavy sacrifices during the war, and continue to do so.
Once the Americans handed the islands back in 1972 (less the vast tracts of real estate occupied by U.S. military bases), Hirohito had 17 years to make the trip south. His son, Akihito, went as Crown Prince and would visit Okinawa a further nine times after acceding to the Chrysanthemum Throne. But Hirohito––who went to every other prefecture in the nation during his long reign––never made it.
Were there political forces keeping him away? Could it be that conservative governments in Tokyo, and their patrons in Washington, feared a Hirohito visit would become a rallying point for opponents of the Security Treaty? Most Okinawans oppose the heavy American military presence in their midst, so what would they think of the emperor who effectively put it there?
Earlier this month Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made a well-publicised trip to the western Pacific, carrying on where Hirohito almost left off. They went to the island-state of Palau to pay their respects to those who perished in the Battle of Peleliu in September-November 1944 (the distinguished Australian cameraman Damien Parer was among the many thousands killed on that speck of land).
The trip was a considerable undertaking for the Imperial couple: he is now 81, and she is just a year younger. It also carried potent symbolism: in the dignified and modest way in which the frail Emperor and Empress conducted themselves; in the fact that they ventured to another country––Palau is now independent––to draw attention to the terrible costs of war; and in the emphasis placed, in their remarks, on the sacrifices made by both sides in the conflict. This was no chest-beating exercise; it was a voice of reason, humbly reminding Japanese of the true legacy of their past.
None of this symbolism was lost on the Japanese public, at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing a revisionist view of history by downplaying or denying some of the worst aspects of the nation’s past militarist adventures. The New York Times editorialized on 20 April:
Mr. Abe’s nationalist views and pressure from competing political forces have affected his judgment on these delicate issues. He has publicly expressed remorse for the war and said he will honor Japan’s past apologies for its aggression, including the sex slavery. Yet he has added vague qualifiers to his comments, creating suspicions that he doesn’t take the apologies seriously and will try to water them down.
His government has compounded the problem by trying to whitewash that history. This month, South Korea and China criticized efforts by Japan’s Education Ministry to force publishers of middle-school textbooks to recast descriptions of historical events — including the ownership of disputed islands and war crimes — to conform to the government’s official, less forthright analysis. And last year, the Abe government tried unsuccessfully to get the United Nations to revise a 1996 human rights report on the women Japan forced into sex slavery.
Japan’s Imperial family, many believe, is acting as a bulwark against Abe’s retreat from responsibility and as a restraint on his government’s ambitions for an enhanced military capability and more assertive posture towards China.
At a news conference in February, Crown Prince Naruhito, the heir to the throne, was asked for his views ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. He replied: “I myself did not experience the war… but I think that it is important today, when memories of the war are fading, to look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history Japan pursued from the generation which experienced the war to those without direct knowledge.”
The key words are “humbly”, “correctly” and “tragic”. In a country where the sovereign (or, in this case, the sovereign-to-be) is expected to remain strictly apolitical, this was as near as one gets to a public reprimand.
Prime Minister Abe has a special “panel of experts” preparing to advise him on the public remarks he will deliver on 15 August when the nation commemorates the war anniversary. Next week, in Washington, where he is set to become the first Japanese Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, many expect to hear a preview. The New York Times commented that, apart from progress on defence cooperation and trade,
the success of the visit also depends on whether and how honestly Mr. Abe confronts Japan’s wartime history, including its decision to wage war, its brutal occupation of China and Korea, its atrocities and its enslavement of thousands of women forced to work as sex slaves or “comfort women” in wartime brothels.
Australians, fresh from their commemoration of an earlier conflict, should also be attuned to the Japanese leader’s take on history. As will the Imperial family, which has made it clear it will not allow its prestige to be appropriated for any future acts of belligerency. Should Abe during his U.S. visit resort to “weasel words” about the past, there is an octogenarian monarch waiting in his palace who may be prepared to call him out.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.