Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have begun their historic five-day visit to the Philippines to celebrate 60 years of peaceful ties between Tokyo and Manila and to soothe bitter sentiments lingering from World War II.
In a short statement before departing Tokyo yesterday, Emperor Akihito, 82, said Japan should always remember the huge number of people who died in the war.
"Many Filipinos, Americans and Japanese lost their lives in the Philippines during the war. Especially in the battle in Manila, a tremendously large number of innocent Filipino civilians were victims. Upon making this visit, we need to bear this in mind at all times," he said.
More than 100,000 people died in fierce fighting between US and Japanese troops that levelled Manila in 1945. Japan occupied the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. About a million Filipinos died during those brutal years.
Upon stepping out of the plane in Manila, Emperor Akihito bowed slightly. The visit is the first by a reigning Japanese emperor to the Philippines. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, 81, will today visit the national heroes' cemetery in Manila where Filipinos who fought in World War II are buried.
On Friday, they will head to Caliraya town in Laguna province, 100km south of Manila, to lay flowers at a memorial for the Japanese war dead.
The Philippines is the latest stop in what is seen as the Emperor's peace pilgrimage. He visited the World War battle sites of Palau last year and Saipan in 2005. As in his trip to Iwo Jima in 1994, he prayed for both Japanese and US war dead.
Many Filipinos, Americans and Japanese lost their lives in the Philippines during the war... Upon making this visit, we need to bear this in mind at all times.
In remarks at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender last year, Emperor Akihito expressed "profound remorse" for the war fought in his father Emperor Hirohito's name.
Relations between the Philippines and Japan have improved dramatically since the war. Japan has become a major donor to the Philippines, and the two nations are deepening security ties as China asserts its claims in the disputed East and South China seas.
Yet, as in South Korea, the issue of women forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II remains a sticking point.
Manila has records of 174 Philippine "comfort women" who were forced to work in Japanese brothels. More than half have since died.
The surviving women are demanding that Japan own up to the crimes by its soldiers, apologise and include the crimes in its historical accounts.
Activists and nationalist lawmakers said that Emperor Akihito's visit would be more meaningful if he met these women. They also urged President Benigno Aquino to take up the issue with the Emperor.
"President Aquino should address the oppression we suffered, not just because he's forced to. We haven't received any justice. we have lost a lot. We lost our dignity," said Madam Narcisa Claveria, 85, among the few still surviving comfort women.