Thursday, November 12, 2009

Japan Emperor: "Learn from history and prepare for the future".

For the 20th anniversary of the coronation of Japan's Emperor Akihito, I was invited recently with 6 other colleagues of the foreign press to attend a press conference at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at an audience of the imperial couple. The Emperor spoke to us, the media, last week, but his comments were embargoed for publication until the anniversary today of his accession to the Chrysanthemum throne, in line with usual imperial household practice. The 75-year-old monarch and the Empress, always very kind to each other and to the audience, said he was in good health, although he has been treated for cancer and other ailments and appeared frail.

Akihito, who under the post-war constitution serves a largely ceremonial function and is barred from commenting on politics, made quite some comments to our team of reporters that I can now release to the public.

When asked if he had any concerns for the country's future, he said he was worried young people are forgetting their history. Akihito said Japan must not forget its past and especially the difficult years his father was on the throne that included the country's invasion of Asia and the occupation of several of its neighbors.

In a rare defence of his father's wartime record, the Emperor said that Japanese aggression had been contrary to his wishes. "The reign of my father began at a very difficult time." Japan invaded Manchuria six years after Emperor Hirohito (called Emperor Showa after his death) ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne. "There are many lessons that we can learn from the 60-some years of his (Hirohito) reign." "He viscerally knew the importance of peace," Akihito added: "What worries me most is that the history of the past will gradually be forgotten".

An unusual comment of the emperor who at the time was considered divine by his people but seen as an aggressor by the Allied powers.

Akihito said that his father, posthumously called Emperor Showa in Japan after the name of his 1926-89 era, had as crown prince visited France and in particular the site of the World War I battlefield of Verdun.

"He had taken to heart the importance of maintaining peace," Emperor Akihito added: "It is my perception that the events that led to war must have been contrary to what he would have wished."

Quite a strong statement.

Historians are divided on whether the emperor was responsible for Japan's aggression before and during WWII or whether he was the puppet of military and political leaders. Akihito assumed the throne after the death of his father on Jan. 7, 1989, but was not crowned until later that year because the country was officially in mourning.

"I believe it is essential for us to learn from the historical facts and prepare ourselves for the future," Emperor Akihito answered to us.

Hope to sweeten bitter memories

Many Asian countries still have nightmares of Japan's colonization and past aggression and have complained that Japan has white-washed its past in school textbooks. Japan's centre-left Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who recently took power in September, ending 50 years of conservative domination on the Japanese political scene, has pledged stronger ties with Asia and said he and his cabinet ministers will not visit Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

Akihito, who turns 76 next month, also said that "he worried that Japan's society was rapidly aging and its economy weakening, but said he hoped Japanese people would cooperate to overcome the difficulties." Empress Michiko, 75, at the same press conference, said she felt it was "a little disappointing that an aging society is considered only as a problem. I hope we will not lose our habit of congratulating together those who reach the venerable ages of 90, 100, or more."

Some 50,000 people were expected to gather on Thursday for private commemorative events near the palace, central Tokyo, for traditional and modern music performances. Prior to this, a ceremony was organized at the National theatre of Tokyo, in Hanzomon. Akihito's coronation ceremony was held on November 12, 1990, after the end of the mourning period for Hirohito. (with pool reports)

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