Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko returned to Tokyo on Thursday, after wrapping up their three-day visit to Okinawa to pay tribute to the war dead, possibly their final trip to the major World War II battlefield before the emperor's abdication next year.
Their 11th trip to the prefecture was arranged following a strong desire expressed by the emperor and empress who have long felt sympathy for Okinawa, where around a quarter of the residents died in a three-month ground battle in 1945.
The imperial couple visited the National War Dead Peace Mausoleum in the city of Itoman on the main island Tuesday and traveled for the first time to Japan's westernmost island of Yonaguni on Wednesday.
On the final day, they traveled to the city of Tomigusuku on the main island to visit Okinawa Karate Kaikan, a facility dedicated to the karate martial art, which is said to have its roots in Okinawa.
At the mausoleum where the remains of some 180,000 war dead are kept, the emperor offered white chrysanthemums and exchanged words with surviving family members observing the scene.
Tokumasa Miyagi, the 76-year-old chairman of a surviving families' association in Okinawa, said, "Whenever they come to Okinawa, they come here first. We saw once again that they have been thinking about Okinawa so much."
The imperial couple previously visited Okinawa in June 2014 ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 1945, which was fought under the name of Emperor Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
The emperor and empress offer a silent prayer every year on four war-related dates -- June 23, when the Battle of Okinawa ended, Aug. 6, when the first U.S. atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Aug. 9, the day of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and Aug. 15, when Emperor Hirohito told the nation over the radio of the surrender.
The couple considers them as "four days that should never be forgotten." Emperor Hirohito was commander in chief of the Japanese military at the time of the war.
On Yonaguni Island, the emperor and empress visited a stone marking the nation's westernmost point and saw "Yonaguni uma," a horse breed native to Japan.
They also saw a karate exhibit and demonstration at the facility in Tomigusuku and the emperor offered words of encouragement, saying, "I hope you will continue to promote karate."
The 84-year emperor is set to abdicate on April 30, 2019, having signaled his wish to step down due to concern about his advanced age and weakening health. His elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, 58, will ascend the throne the following day.