Saipan made history anew when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko abruptly changed their schedule to stop briefly at the Korean war dead memorial yesterday—the first time the emperor has paid tribute at a monument specifically dedicated to Koreans killed in World War II.
The imperial couple made the brief, unscheduled stop at about 10am, following a tour of historic sites in Marpi. The couple was heading back to Hotel Nikko Saipan when the bulletproof limousine suddenly pulled over at the Korean Peace Memorial.
No cameras were present to document Akihito and Michiko offering a silent prayer for the Korean war dead.
Akihito’s visit to the Korean war dead memorial came after the local Korean community called on the imperial couple to pay respects not only to Japanese, U.S., and local lives lost during the fierce World War II battle of Saipan, but to the Korean war dead as well. The imperial couple was not originally scheduled to pay their respects at the memorial, and some Koreans considered that omission a snub.
A senior Imperial Palace official refused to say whether those concerns prompted the visit. The official, briefing reporters on condition he not be named, said the memorial visit had been approved days before the emperor left Japan but was kept secret from the media until the last minute because of concerns it might be "compromised."
Korea was made a Japanese colony in 1910, and 1,000 or so Koreans were brought to this island before the war as laborers.
Knowledge of the emperor’s gesture delighted most Korean residents on Saipan.
Cho Jin Koo, a director of the Korean Association of Saipan, said his group had gotten no reply from the Japanese government regarding their request as of Monday.
At about 10:20am yesterday, Cho received a phone call from Mikio Numata, Japan’s deputy consul general for Hong Kong, informing him that the emperor had indeed visited the Korean memorial.
“We thought it was impossible, that it was never going to happen. We’re really happy. We hope that the relationship between Korea and Japan will get better in the near future,” Cho said.
Not all Koreans were delighted, though. "Japan has never really apologized," said Ryan Kim, a local tour guide. "There is more for Japan’s emperor to do than go on tours like this."
On the same stop, Akihito and Michiko also paid tribute to the Okinawan people who died on Saipan during the war.
Both the Korean and Okinawan memorials are located within the vicinity of the memorial built by the Japanese government in Marpi.
However, members of the media who are covering the emperor’s visit were not as pleased. Most of them apparently headed back to the media center at Dai-Ichi Hotel Saipan Beach immediately after the Banzai Cliff activity, thinking that it was the last stop in the imperial couple’s tour of Marpi.
The Marpi sites listed in the imperial couple’s itinerary included only the Japan-built Monument of the War Dead in the Mid-Pacific, as well as Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff where hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their death rather than surrender at the end of World War II.
Still, at least one foreign reporter said she had a hunch that Akihito and Michiko would stop at the Korean memorial.
“It’s the way they finished the three sites earlier than scheduled. At Banzai Cliff, I thought they would stay a little bit longer because there was extra time, but they didn’t. Maybe, it’s all part of the plan,” said Emiko Masuda, a reporter for the Japanese-language newspaper Tokyo Shimbun.
The local Korean association drew international media attention after it sent out a statement last week demanding that Akihito and Michiko apologize to Koreans and other nationalities subjugated by the Japanese during the war. The group later toned down their demand and asked the imperial couple to at least make a brief stop at the Korean Peace Memorial and acknowledge the thousands of Koreans who died during the war.
The local Korean group came amid a chill in Japan’s diplomatic ties with China and South Korea, both of which have accused Japan of not fully expressing contrition over the war.
On the first trip by a Japanese monarch to a World War II battlesite overseas, Akihito and Michiko visited several memorials around the island honoring Japanese, Americans and local islanders forced to serve in the name of his father, the late Emperor Hirohito. They also visited the American Memorial Park yesterday,
The fall of Saipan was a turning point in the war in the Pacific. As many as 55,000 Japanese troops and civilians died in the three-week "Operation Forager," which began on June 15, 1944.
Early Tuesday, Akihito offered prayers at "Banzai Cliff," which owes its name to the shouts of "banzai"—a cheer wishing long life to the emperor—by Japanese who plunged to their deaths rather than face capture by the American troops. The royal couple later visited monuments to more than 5,000 Americans, about half of them Marines, and 1,000 or so islanders who were killed on Saipan or nearby islands.
Akihito, 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 has 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 his arrival for the two-day trip.
The royal couple left Saipan Tuesday evening.
About 50,000 people live on Saipan, the biggest island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. The island is about 1,400 miles southeast of Tokyo.
Saipan has become a popular destination for Japanese tourists, honeymooners and golfers, and the royal couple received a warm welcome.
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 weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, 1945.
Carmen Hamilton, an 80-year-old native of Saipan, said she was forced to hide in a cave for a week while the battle raged, and lost her father and brother before it was over.
"But I have no hard feelings to the Japanese," she said. "I love them now."
Hirohito announced Japan’s defeat on Aug. 15, 1945. (With Eric Talmadge of the Associated Press)