By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito headed on Wednesday for the island nation of Palau where he will visit a World War Two battlefield, the latest journey in his efforts to soothe the wounds of a conflict that haunts Asia 70 years after its end.
Some 10,000 Japanese defenders, fighting in the name of 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.
"We believe we must never forget that those beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean have such a tragic history," Kyodo news agency quoted Akihito, 81, as saying before his departure.
Yoshitaka Shindo, a former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet, said Akihito's visit was in no way intended to glorify the war.
"(But) if those who died had not lived, we would not exist now," Shindo, whose grandfather commanded Japanese troops in the bloody battle of Iwo Jima, told Reuters recently.
"So we must never forget our ancestors."
Besides mourning war dead at home, Akihito has sought to help reconciliation with former enemies. In 1992, he became the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit China, where wartime memories still rankle.
Akihito and Empress Michiko marked the 60th anniversary of the conflict's end with a trip to the U.S. territory of Saipan, site of fierce fighting in 1944.
The soft-spoken Akihito, 81, has often urged Japan not to forget the suffering of the war. Such comments have attracted increased attention at a time when Abe appears to be pushing for a less apologetic tone towards Japan's past.
"He has been saying the Japanese need to reflect on their history, including the dark chapters," said Portland State University's Kenneth Ruoff, author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995".
Some young Japanese also worry memories are fading.
"Until now, you had veterans and families of the deceased who could talk about their experiences," said Atsushi Hirano, 22, a student who travels to old battlefields to help collect remains and bring them home.
"But those people are older now and it is harder to hear about their experiences first hand."
Members of Japan's dwindling band of veterans are grateful for the royal pilgrimages.
"We felt we had to fight on for the country, for the emperor, for our families," said Masao Horie, survivor of a doomed campaign in New Guinea, where more Japanese soldiers died of starvation and disease than in battle.
"I am truly grateful that the emperor goes to places like Saipan and Palau," the 99-year-old Horie told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito and Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Robert Birsel)