TOKYO — When Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stood, heads bowed, at a seaside cliff on Saipan 60 years after a bloody World War II battle, their silent prayers conveyed a message many felt resonated louder than words.
On that June 2005 visit – one of many war-related trips during Akihito’s three-decade reign – the royal couple paid their respects at memorials not only for Japanese but also American and Korean war dead.
“I think the emperor felt heartfelt pain and mourning for those who died, and that we must not forget the tragedy of the war and should convey that to the generations who have not experienced it,” Shingo Haketa, former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, which manages the monarch’s affairs, told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
Haketa and a half-dozen other associates of the emperor recounted to Reuters how after the death of his father on Jan. 7, 1989, Akihito carved out an active role as symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation.
Although he cannot directly influence government policy, Akihito has created a broader consciousness of Japan’s wartime past, experts say.
That is a sharp departure from the legacy of his father, Hirohito – once revered as a “living god” in whose name Japan fought World War II. Hirohito’s comments about the conflict were vague after Japan’s defeat, and he remained a divisive figure because of his role.
Akihito, 84, will abdicate next year. On Aug. 15, he will for the last time as reigning emperor take part in an annual memorial ceremony honoring war dead held on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
His retirement comes amid tensions with China and the Koreas, and his legacy appears threatened by a Japanese drift to the right mirrored in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative agenda.
Japanese political leaders have expressed regret, remorse and apology for their country’s wartime actions. But remarks by the emperor have a different weight, experts say.
“Emperors are like popes – their gestures carry a symbolic message,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Japan’s Josai International University.
Pushing the Envelope
Politicians have sometimes undercut official apologies, but Akihito’s message has remained consistent.
“People see (Akihito and Michiko) as sincerely and respectfully trying to reach out to wartime victims in a deeply symbolic and very reconciliatory way,” said Jennifer Lind, a Dartmouth College professor who has written about apologies.
Friends and scholars credit Akihito’s post-war education with laying the foundations for how he forged his role. Influences included Quaker tutor Elizabeth Vining and former Keio University head Shinzo Koizumi, who saw many of his students die in the conflict.
“Currently, most Japanese people think that the emperor is gentle and kind,” Mototsugu Akashi, a former classmate, told Reuters. “But that is clearly a post-war phenomenon.”
The makeover of the monarchy began after Japan’s surrender in 1945, when Akihito was 11.
In theory, the emperor can say what he likes as long as his remarks don’t violate the post-war constitution, which defines the emperor as “the symbol of the State and the unity of the People”, devoid of governmental power and unable to interfere in politics.
In practice, Akihito’s public remarks are carefully vetted to ensure they don’t violate those rules, with delicate discussions determining how forthright he can be.
Akihito strained against those limits, say those who know him.
“I know that for one or two speeches, he was angry with the Imperial Household Agency and foreign ministry about the words to be used,” said Michael Barrett, who knew Akihito while head of the British Council in Japan during the 1990s.
“It was said that they (the imperial couple) were birds in a gilded cage, but he opened the door of that cage,” he added.
In one early example, Seoul in May 1990 wanted the new emperor to apologize for Japan’s often-brutal 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula.
Ruling party lawmakers objected, and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu offered to apologize instead to South Korean president Roh Tae Woo.
Akihito, however, had his own ideas.
“The current emperor wanted to make clear that it was Japan that caused the suffering of the Korean people,” Makoto Watanabe, a former imperial grand chamberlain, an aide to the emperor, told Reuters in an interview.
Ultimately, Akihito had his way after private negotiations with government officials.
“I think of the sufferings your people underwent during this unfortunate period, which was brought about by my country, and cannot but feel the deepest regret,” he said at a banquet for Roh.
The early years of Akihito’s reign saw a flourishing of debate over Japan’s responsibility for World War II and a series of government apologies.
The statements, and efforts to teach children about Japan’s wartime actions, sparked a conservative backlash against a view of history seen as undermining national pride and identity.
In 1992, Akihito became the first modern Japanese monarch to visit China. Domestic right-wing groups opposed the trip, while Chinese activists demanded an apology.
While in China, the emperor said he felt “deep sorrow” for the suffering Japan inflicted on the Chinese people.
The next year, he began visits to wartime sites, beginning in Okinawa, where resentment lingered against mainland Japan over the islanders’ wartime sacrifices.
Six decades after the war’s end, he visited Saipan, a US territory, on his first trip to a foreign battleground.
“He had felt strongly that he wanted to pray for all the souls who died in the war, not just domestically but overseas, not just Japanese but all the people of the world,” Haketa said.
“Usually, the emperor’s overseas trips are in response to requests by the government, but this trip was based on his strong personal desire,” he added.
Despite Akihito’s age and health problems – he has had heart surgery and been treated for prostate cancer – he has continued his travels.
In 2015 he and Michiko went to Palau’s tiny Peleliu Island, site of a fierce battle in 1944. In 2016 they visited the Philippines and this year returned to Okinawa.
On the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat, Akihito expressed “deep remorse” over the war, a nuanced departure from his annual script.
Many liberals and moderate conservatives saw it as a subtle rebuke to Abe, who a day earlier had expressed “utmost grief” for the suffering Japan inflicted but said future generations should not have to keep apologizing.
Months later, Akihito told a news conference to mark his 82nd birthday: “I believe having thorough knowledge about the last war and deepening our thoughts about the war is most important for the future of Japan.”
Akihito’s heir, Oxford-educated Crown Prince Naruhito, 58, holds similar views on teaching about the tragedy of the war.
“It is important to look back in a humble way on the past and pass on correctly the tragic experiences of war … from the generation that experienced the war to those who have grown up without first-hand knowledge of it,” Naruhito told a news conference ahead of his 55th birthday.
But it is unclear how much impact Naruhito will have, partly because like most Japanese, he did not experience the war.
“If he speaks of remorse, many people will ask, ‘Remorse for what?'” said Keio University imperial law professor Hidehiko Kasahara.