Akihito braves Okinawa: Emperor's trip brings Japanese war guilt closer to home

EMPEROR AKIHITO arrives in Okinawa today for the first visit by a Japanese emperor to the island, 48 years after Japanese troops exposed Okinawan civilians to a war in which a third of the population were killed. The Emperor will find himself having to make some form of euphemistic apology for the war - but unlike his earlier visits to China and South-east Asia, this time he will be talking to Japanese citizens.

The official reason for the emperor's visit, however, is for a tree-planting ceremony, and anti-imperial feeling in Okinawa is running high.

The authorities have responded with a massive security operation which is more reminiscent of a country in the throes of a military coup than of modern Japan. There are police roadblocks throughout Naha, the capital of Okinawa, and people are being stopped and questioned on the streets. Left-wing activists have been detained for questioning.

Okinawa, a sub-tropical island 1,000 miles from Tokyo, was once an independent kingdom with its own language and customs. It was first invaded by Japan in the early 17th century, but was not fully absorbed into Japan until 1879. The Okinawans are ethnically different from the Japanese, and have long been treated as second-class citizens. But Okinawans' bitterest feelings go back to the Second World War, when the Japanese army, fighting in the name of the late emperor, Hirohito, chose to make its last stand on Okinawa against the advancing allies.

The battle for Okinawa lasted from March until August 1945, and cost the lives of more than 100,000 civilians and about the same number of combatants. Many of the civilians died in mass suicides forced on them by Japanese troops who were unwilling to allow the locals - whose loyalty was suspect anyway - to surrender to the invaders. Others died in the intense Allied shelling of the island, which came to be known as the 'typhoon of steel'. The Japanese troops had dug deep bunkers and tunnels, and refused to surrender for weeks despite the overwhelming firepower of the US and British forces.

Because of this the emperor, and the symbols associated with him from the days of the war, including the Rising Sun flag, have always been regarded with deep reservations by the Okinawans. Only last month Shoichi Chibana, a supermarket owner from the north of the island, was given a one-year suspended prison sentence for burning the flag - called the Hinomaru in Japanese - six years ago as a protest against Japanese militarism.

On the first day of his visit, the emperor is due to visit a grave of the war dead, where he is expected to make some sanitised remarks about the war, expressing his 'regret' for 'past sufferings'. Okinawans had repeatedly demanded that his father, Hirohito, come to the island to apologise, but the Imperial Household Agency delayed for too long, and by the time a date was set for a visit in 1988 he had fallen sick. He died soon after.

Akihito has already made several visits to Okinawa as Crown Prince, and in 1975 he and his wife narrowly escaped when a petrol bomb was thrown at them by an extremist. For this reason, 4,700 policemen have been mobilised to provide security during the visit. The Okinawa prefectural government is spending 2bn yen ( pounds 11.4m) on the security surrounding the visit, including the construction of special buildings.

In an attempt to paper over ill feeling, the tree-planting ceremony, to be held on Sunday, is being promoted as a way of 'covering with green' what was devastated by war. But Okinawans feel the timing is late, and no amount of saplings will hide the resentment felt by older islanders towards those who made them suffer.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Co-Ordinator - FF&E

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior FF&E Project Co-ordinator is re...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Carer / Support Worker plus Bank Support

£10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A delightful, 11 year old boy who lives in t...

Recruitment Genius: Office Furniture Installer / Driver

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Furniture Installer /...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - North West - OTE £40k

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor