Japanese Emperor Akihito bowed his head in sorrow during a somber ceremony at the Philippines’ biggest war cemetery on Wednesday, but also enjoyed banter about cars, fashion and food on the first full day of a historic visit.
Akihito, 82, and his wife, Empress Michiko, are in Manila to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic ties, while also honoring those who died during Japan’s brutal occupation of the Philippines.
Akihito’s visit is the first by a Japanese emperor to the Philippines and comes as the two countries fortify economic and defense ties, partly to counter China’s increasingly assertive actions in disputed regional waters.
The official events of his five-day trip began on Wednesday morning with a red-carpet welcome ceremony in Malacañang hosted by President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
In the afternoon, he visited the sprawling Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) in Manila, built in 1947 to honor Filipino soldiers who died during World War II.
Akihito has made honoring Japanese and non-Japanese who died in World War II a touchstone of his near three-decade reign—known as Heisei, or “achieving peace”—and now in its twilight.
Akihito has also previously journeyed to other Pacific battle sites where Japanese troops and civilians made desperate last stands in the name of his father, Hirohito.
The other key symbolic event on Akihito’s agenda in the Philippines will be a visit on Friday to a shrine for Japanese casualties of the war in Caliraya, a lake resort village about three hours’ drive south of Manila.
Before leaving Tokyo on Tuesday, Akihito said a main focus of his trip was to honor the war dead.
“In the Philippines, many lives of Filipinos, Americans and Japanese were lost during the war,” he noted.
The emperor specifically referred to the Manila independence battle in his remarks.
“We’d like to conduct our visit by always keeping this in mind,” he said.
Akihito’s remorse over the war helps to improve Japan’s international image, counter-balancing his government’s more nationalist bent, according to Manila-based political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian.
“The emperor will serve as the apologetic, sincere face of Japan… it will balance out his government’s controversial, pugnacious and seemingly revisionist statements,” he said.
Conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe angered China and South Korea when he marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender last year by saying future generations should not apologize for the war.
But the Philippines now views Japan, its biggest source of development aid and foreign investment, as a trusted ally.
Highlighting the warmth of the relationship, Akihito and Aquino enjoyed a wide-ranging, 20-minute chat inside Malacanang after the welcome ceremony on Wednesday.
The conversation jumped from Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo that is popular in the Philippines to Akihito’s previous visit as a prince in 1962 when he went to a fog-shrouded volcano close to Manila, according to their aides.
They also discussed hot sales of Japanese cars in the Philippines, and the rice industries that are so important to both nations.
Outside Malacang, though, about 200 people rallied to demand justice for women who were forced into sexual slavery by occupying Japanese soldiers in World War II.
“To the emperor of Japan, talk to your leader about Filipina grandmothers who are fighting for their rights,” one of seven former sex slaves at the protest, Narcisa Claveria, 85, said over a megaphone.
Known as “comfort women,” they have long demanded a formal apology from Tokyo, compensation and inclusion of the atrocities in Japanese history books.