- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — Japan’s Emperor Akihito made an unprecedented visit to an overseas battlefield yesterday to pay tribute to the tens of thousands who died on this tiny Pacific island in one of World War II’s defining conflicts.

The visit took place amid growing anger in China and the Koreas over what many there see as Japan’s failure to make amends for wartime atrocities, and the repeated visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a war shrine in Tokyo that is a powerful symbol of Japan’s pre-1945 militarism.

Akihito and Empress Michiko were to spend two days in this semitropical U.S. territory, where fierce fighting marked the beginning of the end for Japan’s war machine in the Pacific.

Figures vary, but as many as 55,000 Japanese troops and civilians died in the three-week “Operation Forager,” which began June 15, 1944. The fighting also claimed 5,000 American lives, most of them Marines, and 1,000 or so islanders who were killed on Saipan or nearby islets.

Akihito, who was 11 years old when the war ended, has been to China and has expressed remorse for the past during visits to Japan by South Korean leaders. But he had never made a trip to offer condolences at a battlefield overseas.

“This time on soil beyond our shores, we will once again mourn and pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war and we will remember the difficult path the bereaved families had to follow,” he said in a statement before leaving Tokyo.

Akihito was scheduled to offer prayers today at “Banzai Cliff,” which owes its name to the shouts of “Banzai” — a cheer wishing long life to the emperor — by Japanese as they plunged to their deaths rather than face capture by American troops.

The royal couple also planned to place wreaths at monuments to the U.S. troops and islanders who were killed.

In the 60 years since the war, Saipan has become a popular destination for Japanese tourists, honeymooners and golfers, and the royal couple received a warm welcome.

“This is a great historical day,” Northern Marianas Gov. Juan Babauta said.

But not everyone was pleased. Anger over Japan’s militarist past runs deep in Asia, where many believe Tokyo has failed to atone.

A small minority of Koreans living here threatened to stage protests because the imperial couple were not expected to pay their respects at a memorial to the Koreans who died fighting here.

Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until 1945, and many Koreans were forced to fight for the Japanese military.

The invasion of Saipan has been called the D-Day of the Pacific. Its fall allowed American B-29 bombers to pound Japan’s cities, and the neighboring island of Tinian was used as the launch point for the planes carrying the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s defeat on Aug. 15 that year.

Today, about 50,000 people live on Saipan, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The island is about 1,400 miles southeast of Tokyo.

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