TOKYO — The emperor and empress are scheduled to visit the Philippines from Jan. 26 to 30, ahead of celebrations in July marking 60 years of diplomatic relations between that nation and Japan.
The trip is aimed at fostering mutual goodwill and friendship. However, the two nations share a combined loss of more than 1.6 million lives as a result of World War II. The Imperial couple will therefore be paying homage to the war victims of both countries for the first time.
"We Japanese must remember these events long into the future with a profound sense of remorse," the emperor remarked at an official banquet for Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the Imperial Palace in June last year, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
The emperor's statement, delivered in public before the president of the Philippines, who was attending as a state guest, was the first acknowledgment of the great war damage sustained in that country.
Shinichi Miura, 92, from Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, is a veteran of the Battle of Luzon, where he served with the 17th Infantry Regiment. Miura is grateful for the emperor and empress' tribute to the war dead, following similar sentiments they conveyed in visits to Saipan and Palau. Despite wishing to honor his fallen comrades, Miura is unable to travel to the location of their passing.
In a moment suffused with the ear-splitting sound of explosions, Miura felt his body lift up as he watched a mortar fragment pierce the stomach of the squad leader next to him. It was late April 1945. Miura had been part of the general offensive in southwest Luzon against the American troops that had begun landing in January.
The squad leader soon took his last breath, but in the face of heavy fire, Miura was forced to hastily bury him nearby and retreat.
Miura's unit hid in the jungle, but he lost many of his fellow soldiers to the machine-gun fire that rained down from the sky and to malaria. The unit also had to fend off attacks from guerrilla forces, and had been ordered to kill civilians who helped the guerrillas.
Miura could not bring himself to carry out those orders after picturing the face of his beloved 1-year-old daughter, but he was pardoned by the squad leader, who was his direct superior.
"I left many of my fellow soldiers behind in the Philippines, and dragged many civilians into the fight. With these visits by the emperor and empress, I'm hoping for closure for my sense of guilt," he said.
A bomb dropped by American forces exploded near a Manila hospital where Edgar Krohn was taking shelter. The people hiding inside stampeded toward the exit, screaming.
A Philippine national of German ancestry, Krohn, now 87, had been caught in the crossfire of the American invasion of Japanese-held Manila in February 1945. He escaped, leaving behind the cries for help of casualties struggling in the throes of death. An estimated 100,000 civilians lost their lives in that battle.
Krohn himself was wounded by a shell fragment that became lodged in his head. "I was angry that I'd been dragged into the Pacific War," he said. So he will never forget that day, Krohn contributed to the building of a memorial for the civilians who lost their lives in Manila.
Fifty years later, it was unveiled in February 1995, with an inscription that the memorial is dedicated to all innocent victims of war, their bodies consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath rubble.
Ricardo Jose, a professor of history at the University of the Philippines, said Japan's official development assistance and yen loans after the war played an important part in the development of the Philippines, and that relations with Japan improved by focusing on the economy.
A 1962 visit by the Imperial couple, at that time the crown prince and crown princess, is also cited as a turning point in improving bilateral relations. It showed Filipinos the new face of Japan, brimming with youth and vitality.
Japan is now the Philippines' largest trading partner. Over 1,500 Japanese companies have a presence in the country, and an estimated 200,000 Filipinos live in Japan, making them its third-largest foreign community. A 2011 survey by the BBC reported that 84 percent of Filipinos view Japan positively, a proportion second only to Indonesia, making the Philippines one of the most pro-Japanese nations in the world.
Jose said the upcoming memorial services and state visit by the Imperial couple - who have always tried to keep the memories of World War II from fading - can be an opportunity to demonstrate the mature relationship between the two countries.
Jose said his grandfather perished in the war and stressed the importance of remembering that there are still people out there who hold firm to the idea that "We can forgive, but must not forget."
Shortly after the war broke out in December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Philippines, at that time colonized by the Americans. The Japanese had overwhelmed it by June 1942, but the Allied forces struck back to defeat them in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. The Japanese then withdrew from the islands, beginning with Luzon.
Japanese soldiers also had to contend with guerrilla forces armed by the Americans. In the Senshi Sosho, a military history of the Pacific War, the commander of a corps operating in southwest Luzon was reported as saying: "Any civilian assisting guerrilla forces must be treated as a guerrilla fighter and exterminated."
Many died from death and starvation. Japan's casualties came to a total of 518,000, its greatest loss of life in foreign territory. Many Filipinos were also caught in the conflict, totaling about 1.11 million deaths, according to a joint estimate by the U.S. and Philippine governments.
After the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the reparations treaty with the Philippines came into force in July 23, 1956, marking the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries.