Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Final Destination of the Imperial Memorial Visits
NISHIKAWA Megumi  / Journalist

December 31, 2018
The This year, on August 15, Their Imperial Majesties Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended the annual Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead for the last time during their reign. In a sense, they were also reaching a final destination on their lengthy voyage of memorialization with this last stop at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo’s Kudanshita district. Of course, even after stepping down from the Chrysanthemum Throne, Akihito will continue to think of those who lost their lives in the conflict with the same fervor that he always has; but this summer’s ceremony was the last time for him to express this thought with the whole of his physical being, before the eyes of the nation.

I watched this final ceremony on television. After reading his statement before the memorial cenotaph and folding up the manuscript, he gazed up to the pillar standing before him for some moments, seemingly loath to walk away from this place. As he exited the venue, he bowed his head numerous times to those in attendance.

Emperor Akihito’s and Empress Michiko’s first journey to console the spirits of those lost in World War II took place in February 1994, when they traveled to Ioto (Iwo Jima) in the Ogasawara island chain. In 2005 they would visit Saipan, achieving the first memorial visit to foreign soil. In 2015, they went as far as the island of Peleliu in the South Pacific nation of Palau to pay their respects. And in all of the international tours they made in the cause of Japan’s international friendships, they made sure to include offerings of respect and prayers to those lost in wartime as part of their official schedule.

One key aspect of these memorial visits has been their role as a visible form of the act of prayer. As the years have passed and Their Majesties have slowed down physically, they have continued to make these appearances before the public, bowing so deeply their bodies fold at nearly a right angle as they offer prayers. Whether they stand before a cenotaph, face out over the ocean, or contemplate the plunging drop of a cliff before them, their earnest act of deeply bowing their heads cannot fail to inspire a profound emotional response in those watching.

Instilling the visible aspects of these visits with still more meaning have been the poems recited by the Emperor and Empress on each occasion. These verses, providing a glimpse of Their Majesties’ emotions during the visits, stir our imagination when we read them even now, calling to mind anew images of the memorial tours. Take, for example, the poem recited by Empress Michiko during the June 2005 visit to Saipan:

Ima wa tote / shima hate no gake / fumi kerishi / o mina no aura / omoeba kanashi

At the end of this island
Those women with determination
Kicked the cliff and jumped
Ah, sad to think of the power
Of their soft foot-soles.

The view of the Emperor and Empress, solemnly bowing their heads as they stood before the cliff edge, was overlaid with the sad vision of those who had flung themselves to their deaths decades earlier. By encapsulating this image in thirty-one syllables of verse, Her Majesty cemented this memorial visit all the more vividly in the collective memory.

What was the significance of these memorial visits?

Firstly, they have been a means for Emperor Akihito to acknowledge the responsibility of his father, the late Emperor Showa, who was unable to halt the war. These visits have been an imperial initiative to display sincere reflection on Japan’s history through the wordless acts of prayer.

Secondly, these memorial visits, carried out by the very living symbols of Japan, have served to display the Japanese moral sense to the international community and to enhance global trust in Japan as a pacifist state.

At various times from the 1960s through the 1980s, concern arose about the possibility that Japan could rise again as a militarist power. Since entering the Heisei era, the reign of the present emperor, in 1989, though, there have been no worried discussions along these lines to speak of (with the exception of comments from China and South Korea prompted by those countries’ historical issues). In the light of this, it can be said that the imperial memorial visits have had a political impact going beyond their moral significance.

Megumi Nishikawa is Contributing Editor for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川恵 / ジャーナリスト

2018年 12月 31日










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Final Destination of the Imperial Memorial Visits