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Rain and tributes shower the imperial couple


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POSTED: Thursday, July 16, 2009

The thunder of cannons gave way to silence as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan honored America's war dead yesterday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, bowing their heads in respect after laying a wreath in a drizzling rain.

A booming 21-gun salute heralded their arrival at the serene Punchbowl crater, resting place for tens of thousands of American veterans. The sun was shining as the emperor and empress stepped out of their limousine and were greeted by Gov. Linda Lingle, who bowed deeply and shook hands, and Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific forces.

But rain began to fall as a Marine Corps band played the Japanese national anthem, followed by the “;Star Spangled Banner,”; and grew steadier as the couple placed a wreath of white chrysanthemums and yellow orchids at the dedicatory stone.

“;I think the rain makes it even more special,”; said Barbara Tanabe, who was among about two dozen invited guests who stood in a downpour to shake hands with the couple. “;We would stand strong for them whatever the weather. They're such a symbol for all Japanese, regardless of citizenship. We all share the same cultural roots.”;

Tanabe added that the empress, who wore a cream suit with navy trim and matching hat, expressed her concern for the guests, exclaiming, “;You're getting so wet!”;

Tanabe is a board member of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation, begun by a group of Honolulu residents as a wedding present to the imperial couple in 1959. The emperor and empress came to Hawaii in large part to attend a banquet marking the 50th anniversary of the scholarship program last night. They arrived on Oahu Tuesday afternoon after a state visit to Canada.

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On their last visit to Honolulu, in 1994, the imperial couple also laid a wreath at Punchbowl. As crown prince, Akihito paid his respects at Pearl Harbor in 1960.

The 75-year-old emperor, who was just a boy during World War II, has waged a personal campaign of peace diplomacy during his reign, visiting places such as China, South Korea and Saipan and expressing his regret over the suffering and deaths during the war.

Sadaaki Numata, spokesman for the emperor, said during a news briefing yesterday: “;He feels very strongly that peace has to be maintained, that such a mistake which led Japan to the war and devastation should never be repeated. As he laid the wreath at Punchbowl, I have no doubt that these were the thoughts that were occurring in his mind.”;

Said Fred Ballard, public affairs officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Honolulu, and a veteran himself: “;I think veterans will appreciate the fact that he has come out to honor America's war dead.”;

After the wreath-laying, the imperial couple joined Lingle and Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona at Washington Place for a state luncheon held in their honor. Other officials who were guests at the luncheon included Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese ambassador to the United States, and Keating.

Some of the dishes included Kona lobster sous vide, prawns with fresh lilikoi and crispy skin Hawaiian moi prepared by chef and restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi. At the end of the luncheon, Yamaguchi and his team were introduced to the imperial couple, who thanked the chefs graciously. They enjoyed the dishes, said Numata.

Numata said the imperial couple enjoyed meeting the many people who greeted them, especially the students from Rainbow Gakusen, when they visited the rainbow shower tree they planted nearly 50 years ago at Kapiolani Park on Tuesday.

They were to fly to the Big Island today to attend a reception at Parker Ranch before they depart for Japan. It will be their first visit to the Big Island.

At Punchbowl, Japanese and American flags lined the mall in front of the memorial, whose numerous steps lead to a monument featuring mosaic depictions of World War II battlegrounds, with arrows tracing the paths of Japanese and U.S. forces.

The ceremony included a joint color guard and the mournful sounds of a Marine bugler playing taps. After placing the wreath, the emperor and empress signed the official guest book. Then came the crack of another military salute: seven Marines shooting three rifle rounds in unison.

Moments later, a U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance plane burst out of the clouds, followed by one from the Japan Self-Defense Forces, soaring into a blue stretch of sky.

Adm. Robert Willard, Pacific Fleet commander, attended the ceremony with his wife, Donna. “;I'm thrilled,”; he said before the emperor arrived. “;We served twice in Japan and we've never seen their majesties.”;

Ballard noted that it was a rare opportunity. “;It is kind of neat to have an emperor visit,”; he said. “;I have never seen one before. It wasn't too long ago that you couldn't even look at them, even if you were Japanese.”;