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Japan's Emperor set to make historic Philippine visit


Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are due to visit the Philippines in what will be the first visit to Southeast Asia by a reigning Japanese royal.

Though the Emperor now serves as a national figurehead expected to abide by the general rule that his visits should never have a political agenda, the trip is symbolic. It comes as the two countries celebrate 60 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and illustrates a shift away from anti-Japanese sentiment left over from World War II.

Although the two countries are moving politically and diplomatically forward, for some, the past is hard to forget. Parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial army between 1942 and 1945.

More than a million Filipinos died during Japan's WWII invasion, according to the Philippines' National Historic Commission. Two cities, including the capital Manila, were destroyed.

Across the country, shrines and markers, like that seen at Mount Samat, have been erected to honour the fallen soldiers.

Former Filipina "comfort women" as those who were forced to work in Japan's wartime brothels were euphemistically known, are hoping the Emperor's visit will push forward their decades-old demand for an apology and adequate compensation from Japan.

Lila Pilipina, a women's rights group focusing on "comfort women" issues in the Philippines, estimates that less than 70 survivors remain of the 238 that came forward in the country to admit they had been forced to work in brothels

Last month, South Korean former comfort women, their families and supporters reached a landmark agreement to resolve the issue that has plagued diplomatic ties since the end of the war.

But the Filipina former comfort women have made little progress in their campaign.

"As a person and as the Emperor, he could influence many people in the cabinet of Japan, and the people of Japan themselves, so that is how we value the coming of the Emperor. If he will only do his sense of responsibility, because when you inherit the crown, you inherit the responsibility, and we know for a fact that the Japanese military sexual slavery has been designed, implemented and with the hand of the Emperor," said Lila Pilipina's Executive Director, Rechilda Extramadura.

The younger generation in Manila, born long after the war, are more forgiving.

"I think even if the pain is not fully diminished, there is still a sense of moving on. We now have a lot of people wanting to visit Japan, people who are engaged in their culture, so we are giving them a chance," added psychology student Charlene Bustamante.

In Tokyo, Hitotsubashi University history professor Satoshi Nakano says the visit comes at an important time.

"Apart from the intentions of the Emperor and Empress, their choice to visit the Philippines this time may have political implications because the situation is such that Southeast Asian countries expect the United States and Japan to play significant roles, particularly in their relations with China," he said.

Beijing claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and has been building up facilities on the islands it controls. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also have claims. Speculation is rife that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is using the royal family to build stronger ties with the Philippines to counter China's claims.

The Philippines and Japan are discussing the transfer of military equipment, like surveillance planes and patrol boats, to help strengthen the Philippines' capability to guard its maritime borders as China rapidly expands.

Japan has also made available about $2 billion for roads and railways to upgrade the Philippines' dilapidated infrastructure and untangle traffic gridlock in the capital. — Reuters