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Thursday 22 February 2018

Emperor prays for island war dead

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko lay a wreath in front of a memorial for American victims on Pelelilu island in Palau (Kyodo News/AP)
Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko lay a wreath in front of a memorial for American victims on Pelelilu island in Palau (Kyodo News/AP)

The emperor of Japan has visited a remote Pacific island to pray for thousands of Japanese and American soldiers who died during the Second World War battle of Peleliu.

Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko laid bouquets of white flowers in front of a memorial for Japanese victims after arriving by helicopter on Peleliu island in the western Pacific nation of Palau. They later prayed at a separate memorial for Americans.

"Our thoughts go out to all those who went to the battlefields to defend their countries, never to return home," Akihito said before his flight to Palau. "We must never forget that those beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean have such a tragic history."

Akihito, 81, was 11 at the end of the war. His father, Hirohito, was emperor at the time.

Peleliu is one of several islands where Japanese soldiers fought to the death during the final year of the war. The three-month battle of Peleliu, which started in September 1944, left about 10,000 Japanese and 1,700 Americans dead.

One Japanese survivor, Kiyokazu Tsuchida, 95, travelled to the island for the imperial visit.

"Of the 34 survivors, sadly I'm the only one who made it back here," he said. After a moment of silence before the memorial, he added: "My perished fellow soldiers must be all delighted to see the emperor."

The visit by the emperor highlights the slow-moving search for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers.

Only half of the 2.4 million Japanese who died overseas have been recovered. Of those, about 300,000 are believed to be lost at sea and unrecoverable.

Officials cite a lack of documentation and geographical and political reasons for the delay. In recent years, veterans groups and relatives of the dead have pressured the government to do more, and prime minister Shinzo Abe has promised stepped-up efforts.

In Palau, half of the estimated 16,200 war dead are still unaccounted for, more than 60 years after the search began in 1953, according to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Six sets of remains were excavated during the latest search last month.

Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines, was ruled by Japan for about 30 years after the First World War.

The emperor's visit in the 70th anniversary year of the war's end follows a visit to Saipan, another wartime battlefield in the Pacific, in 2005, the 60th anniversary year. He also prayed for Japanese and US war-dead in Iwo Jima in 1994.

Press Association

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