Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in Okinawa on Nov. 17 and paid their respects to those who sacrificed their lives during the Battle of Okinawa and met survivors, in their first visit to the island prefecture in eight years.
The imperial couple has long held special feelings for Okinawa, having visited it nine times, with this visit being their fourth since Akihito became emperor.
The people of Okinawa have historically held mixed emotions toward the imperial family, one reason given for Emperor Showa never having visited his nation’s most southernmost prefecture after World War II.
The imperial couple went to Okinawa for a four-day trip to attend the annual national convention seeking to preserve marine resources.
Their first stop was a memorial facility for victims of the Battle of Okinawa, a location they have always visited on their trips to Okinawa. The battle was fought from April to June 1945 as U.S. troops came ashore and encountered stiff resistance in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, with civilians caught in the middle.
At the Okinawa peace memorial in Itoman city, the imperial couple was welcomed by three officials of the Shiraume alumni association, including Kiku Nakayama, 84, the chairperson.
During World War II, students at a girls’ high school were recruited to serve as nurses for Imperial Japanese troops, and those who were killed during the fighting are memorialized at the Shiraume-no-To tower in Itoman.
“Where is the tower located?” the empress asked.
The imperial couple turned in the direction of the tower and bowed deeply. They also presented flowers to Nakayama and asked that they be laid in front of the tower.
“I was overcome with emotion,” Nakayama said.
The imperial couple next visited the national cemetery for the war dead in Okinawa, where they offered white chrysanthemums.
Welcoming them at the cemetery was Naeko Teruya, 76, chairperson of the Okinawa federation of war-bereaved families. It was the third time she met the imperial couple.
“Your name is Naeko, isn’t it?” the empress asked Teruya. “I remember you.”
According to Teruya, Emperor Akihito said, “I hope you will do your best since the war-bereaved families are advancing in age.”
Teruya said, “While the sadness I feel at having lost loved ones will never be healed, the words from the imperial couple that express their feelings for Okinawa will serve as encouragement.”
Also waiting in front of the cemetery was Tsuru Motomura, 87, a former curator of the Himeyuri Peace Museum.
“How is the museum going?” the imperial couple asked her. “Are children coming to study at the museum?”
Greeting the imperial couple at their hotel was Masakatsu Takara, 72, the chairman of a group of bereaved family members who lost relatives aboard the Tsushima Maru, a passenger-cargo ship that was evacuating students and other civilians from Okinawa to the main Japanese islands. The Tsushima Maru was sunk by a U.S. Navy submarine in August 1944. About 1,400 aboard died and about 400 were saved. About half the victims were schoolchildren.
Takara survived, but he lost nine family members.
“Only my older sister and I were saved,” he told the imperial couple.
Empress Michiko told him, “It must have been terrible.”
The imperial couple has long held special interest in the tragedy of the Tsushima Maru. They are said to offer a moment of silent prayer each year on Aug. 22, when the ship sank.
In 1997, at a news conference to mark his 64th birthday, Emperor Akihito said, “I am pained when I realize that many of the victims were people who were born at the same time I was.”
In 2005, Empress Michiko said on the occasion of her 71st birthday, “If the children who died in the sinking of the Tsushima Maru had survived, they would be 70 now.”
The group of bereaved family members established the Tsushima-maru Memorial Museum in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, in 2004.
“I hope the imperial couple will one day visit the facility,” Takara said.
(This article was written by Ryuichi Kitano and Yasuhiko Shima.)
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