MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III gave a red-carpet welcome to Japan's emperor Wednesday in a sign of blossoming ties between the two nations, both mired in territorial disputes with China, while further moving past painful memories of Japan's World War II aggression.
Aquino and Emperor Akihito held talks at Manila's Malacanang presidential palace, where Philippine and Japanese flags were displayed side by side and Filipino troops fired cannons in a traditional salute. Aquino later hosted a state banquet for Akihito, whose visit marks 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Aquino and Akihito discussed robust sales of Japanese-made cars that have contributed to Manila's heavy traffic and the entry of Japanese retail store Uniqlo, presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma Jr. said.
Akihito, a revered symbol of Japanese unity who plays no political role in his country, did not discuss contentious security issues such as the territorial disputes or demands for an apology by Filipino women who accuse Japan's wartime army of forcing them into sexual slavery, according to the emperor's press secretary, Hatsuhisa Takashima.
At the state banquet, the emperor recalled the fierce battles between Japanese and American forces in the Philippines that resulted "in the loss of many Filipino lives" and left many others injured.
"This is something we Japanese must never forget and we intend to keep this engraved in our hearts throughout our visit," Akihito said, expressing hope that his trip will help deepen Japanese ties with the Philippines.
Aquino said the emperor was apprehensive when, as crown prince, he first visited the Philippines in 1962 because of what happened during Japan's wartime occupation of the country. But Akihito's anxieties eased then because of the warm Philippine reception he and his wife received, he said.
"I am held in awe, recognizing the burdens you have borne, as you have had to live with the weight of the decisions made by others during the dark episodes in the history of our nations," Aquino said.
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 countries, 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.
Still, six elderly Filipino women led a protest outside the presidential palace Wednesday asking the Japanese government to formally apologize and compensate them and other sex slaves abused by Japanese forces during the war. They carried placards reading, "No to rising Japanese militarism."
Akihito's foreign trips conveying a pacifist message are important because they ease concerns over perceptions that Japanese political leaders are trying to flex the country's military muscles once again, said Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at Manila's De La Salle University.
He said it is still important to push Japan to deal with the remaining issues caused by its wartime aggression.
"We should forgive but we should not forget the past. That will also help Japan," Heydarian said.
Akihito is to pay his respects at memorials for both Philippine and Japanese war dead during his visit, which ends Saturday.