Japan's Akihito visits Philippine WWII cemetery

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Japanese Emperor Akihito bowed his head in sorrow during a sombre ceremony at the Philippines' biggest war cemetery Wednesday as he vowed never to forget the many Filipinos killed during World War II.

Akihito, 82, and his wife Empress Michiko are in the Philippines to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic ties, while also honouring those who died during Japan's brutal occupation of the Philippines.

"During this war, fierce battles between Japan and the United States took place on Philippine soil, resulting in the loss of many Filipino lives and leaving many Filipinos injured," he said.

"This is something we Japanese must never forget and we intend to keep this engraved in our hearts throughout our visit," he said at a banquet hosted by President Benigno Aquino.

Aquino in turn, praised Akihito's role in reconciliation, saying: "I am held in awe, recognising the burdens you have borne, as you have had to live with the weight of the decisions made by others during the dark episodes in the history of our nations."

Akihito's visit is the first by a Japanese emperor to the Philippines and comes as the two countries strengthen economic and defence 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 at the presidential palace hosted by Aquino.

In the afternoon he visited the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes' Cemetery) in Manila, which was built in 1947 to honour Filipino soldiers who died during World War II.

During the Japanese WWII occupation, tens of thousands of soldiers died marching to Japanese concentration camps or during confinement.

An estimated 100,000 Filipinos also died during the month-long campaign to liberate Manila in 1945, which saw aerial bombings and artillery flatten the city.

- Promoting peace -

Akihito has made honouring 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.

He has 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 honour the war dead.

"In the Philippines, many lives of Filipinos, Americans and Japanese were lost during the war," Akihito said.

He specifically referred to the Manila independence battle in his remarks.

His remorse over the war helps to improve Japan's international image and counterbalances 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 that future generations should not apologise 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 after the welcoming ceremony on Wednesday.

Outside the palace, though, about 200 people rallied to demand justice for women 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.

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