Japan's Emperor Akihito mourns Japanese, US war dead on Pacific isle

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, offered flowers and prayers on Thursday at a memorial to those who died in a fierce fighting on the Pacific isle of Peleliu.

About 10,000 Japanese defenders, fighting in the name of Emperor Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, died in a two-month battle in 1944 on Palau's tiny Peleliu island along with about 1,600 American troops. Unaware Japan had surrendered on Aug 15, 1945, 34 Japanese soldiers hid in the jungle until April 1947.

With the blue ocean sparkling in the background, Emperor Akihito, wearing an open-necked white shirt, and Empress Michiko, clad in an ivory suit with a grey lapel, bowed deeply before laying bouquets of white chrysanthemums at a memorial erected by Japan's government to those who died in the region in the war. The ceremony was shown live on public broadcaster NHK.

The imperial couple then spoke to Japanese veterans and soldiers' relatives who travelled to the island for the event. They were scheduled to offer silent prayers at a separate memorial for US soldiers who died on the island. "During World War II... fierce battles between the United States and Japan took place in this region, including the present Republic of Palau, resulting in the loss of countless lives," Emperor Akihito said at a banquet on Wednesday. "We are here in Palau to mourn and pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in World War Two and reflect on the hardships suffered by the bereaved families."

Emperor Akihito, 81, has often urged Japan not to forget the suffering of the war, comments that have attracted fresh attention at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be pushing for a less apologetic tone towards Japan's past.

Besides mourning war dead at home, Emperor Akihito has sought to help reconcile with former enemies. In 1992, he became the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit China, where wartime memories still rankle.

Emperor Akihito had long wanted to visit Peleliu but had been unable do so because of obstacles to travelling there.

Instead, they marked the 60th anniversary of the war's end with a trip to the US territory of Saipan, site of a bloody battle in 1944.

The imperial couple spent Wednesday night on a Japanese Coast Guard patrol ship and flew to Peleliu by helicopter. They are scheduled to return to Japan later on Thursday.

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