Japan’s emperor
visits Saipan

His trip to the historic WWII
battlefield bothers some there

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands » Bowing deeply atop a cliff where his countrymen plunged to their deaths during a key World War II battle, Japan's Emperor Akihito paid tribute yesterday to the tens of thousands who died on this tiny Pacific island in the successful U.S. invasion.

Akihito, accompanied by Empress Michiko, offered prayers and flowers at several memorials around the rugged northern side of this sun-drenched island, honoring not only the Japanese who died, but also American soldiers, local islanders and Koreans forced to fight for Japan.

It was the first trip by a Japanese monarch to a World War II battlefield abroad, though Akihito has paid tribute at similar memorials in Japan, and comes amid rising anger in Asia over the way Japan has handled its militarist past.

The fierce offensive by American troops on Saipan marked the beginning of the end for Japan's war machine in the Pacific. Figures vary, but as many as 55,000 Japanese died in the three-week "Operation Forager," which began on June 15, 1944.

More than 5,000 Americans were killed, about half of them Marines, along with about 1,000 islanders.

Akihito, in a dramatic gesture, offered prayers today at "Banzai Cliff," which owes its name to the shouts of "banzai" -- a cheer wishing long life to the emperor -- by Japanese who plunged to their deaths rather than face capture by the American troops.

The royal couple later visited monuments to the American troops.

In a surprise stop, he also paid his respects at the Korean war dead memorial. A small minority of Koreans living here threatened to stage protests because the imperial couple was not initially scheduled to pay their respects at the memorial.

A senior palace official said the visit had been approved days before the emperor left Japan but had been kept secret from the media until the last minute because of concerns it might be "compromised."

The royal visit comes amid growing anger in China and the Koreas over what many there see as Japan's failure to make amends for its brutal past. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has also stirred up emotions with his repeated visits to a war shrine in Tokyo that is a powerful symbol of Japan's pre-1945 militarism.

Akihito, 11 years old when the war ended, has been to China and has expressed remorse for the past during visits to Japan by South Korean leaders. But he has never made a trip to offer condolences at a battlefield overseas.

"This time on soil beyond our shores, we will once again mourn and pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, and we will remember the difficult path the bereaved families had to follow," he said in a statement before his arrival for the two-day trip.

Not all Koreans on Saipan felt Akihito's decision to go to the memorial was enough, however.

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