MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Japan's emperor said Tuesday that his nation must remember the tremendous loss of life in the Philippines in World War II, as he and his wife began their first visit to the Southeast Asian country, which suffered under Japanese wartime occupation.
"Many Filipinos, Americans and Japanese lost their lives in the Philippines during the war," Emperor Akihito said in a statement he read before departing from Tokyo. "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."
The 1945 battle for Manila between Japan and allied U.S. and Philippine forces leveled the capital city and left more than 100,000 dead, according to Philippine historians.
Relations between Japan and the Philippines have improved dramatically in the seven decades since the war, with Japan becoming a major trading partner and aid donor for the Philippines. Akihito's visit is seen as a strong sign of a further deepening of ties as the two countries, which are both close American allies, confront China over long-contested maritime territories.
Japan's Self Defense forces have staged joint search and rescue exercises with the Philippine navy near the disputed South China Sea and are providing the Philippines with coast guard patrol boats.
Akihito, who is a revered symbol of Japanese unity but plays no political role in his country, has no plans to discuss security issues such as the territorial disputes or demands for an apology by Filipino women who have accused Japanese forces of forcing them into wartime sex slavery, according to Hatsuhisa Takashima, the emperor's press secretary.
Akihito and Empress Michiko were met at Manila's airport by President Benigno Aquino III, his top Cabinet members and his sister. Aquino is to formally welcome Akihito at the presidential palace on Wednesday and then have a brief private meeting. The president will hold a state banquet for Akihito and Michiko later Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, among the Philippine officials who welcomed Akihito at the airport, said the first visit by a Japanese emperor to the country following the last world war is a milestone.
Gazmin said the Filipino generation that saw the horrors of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s still remembers that period, but that it is time to move on as the two nations, now strategic allies, face common security concerns in the region.
"It's really more painful for us because my father was a veteran soldier who was forced into the 'death march,'" Gazmin told The Associated Press, referring to the Bataan death march, when Japanese soldiers forced tens of thousands of Filipino and American troops to march 100 kilometers (65 miles) from the Bataan Peninsula to prison camps under intense heat and harsh conditions. Thousands died, but Gazmin's father survived.
"We should move forward and forget and work for a better relation," Gazmin said. "It's a necessity, we need allies for our current needs."
Akihito, 82, is to pay his respects at memorials for both Philippine and Japanese war dead.
He is the son of former Emperor Hirohito, under whose name Japan waged World War II. Akihito was 11 years old at the end of the war.
The emperor's trip follows his visits to the World War II battle sites of Palau last year and Saipan in 2005. He also prayed for Japanese and U.S. war dead on Iwo Jima in 1994.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.