Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will make a three-day visit to Okinawa from March 27 to commemorate victims of World War II, in what could be their final trip to the prefecture, the site of a major WWII battle, before the emperor's abdication, the Imperial Household Agency said Monday.
The imperial couple will stay in Naha, the capital of the southern island prefecture, and travel to Japan's westernmost island of Yonaguni for the first time, according to the agency.
The Okinawa trip was arranged as the couple strongly desired to visit the prefecture, which became a fierce battleground in the spring of 1945 and was occupied by the United States after the war until its reversion to Japan in 1972, agency officials said.
The 84-year-old emperor, who will step down in April next year, and empress, 83, have long felt sympathy for Okinawa, around a quarter of whose residents died in a three-month ground battle. The total death toll from the Battle of Okinawa exceeded 200,000, including Americans.
It will be the couple's 11th trip to Okinawa, including visits they made as crown prince and crown princess. They last visited the island prefecture in June 2014 ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 1945.
The two are expected to fly to Okinawa and visit the National War Dead Peace Mausoleum in the city of Itoman on the main island on March 27 to pay tribute to the war dead.
The couple will make a day trip the next day to Yonaguni Island to visit a stone monument marking Japan's westernmost point and see "Yonaguni uma," a horse breed native to Japan.
On the final day, they will travel 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, before flying back to Tokyo.
The emperor and empress first visited Okinawa in 1975, three years after its reversion to Japanese control, at a time when attitudes to the imperial family among local residents were complicated due to the war, which was fought under the name of the emperor's father, Emperor Hirohito. When the couple visited the Himeyuri war memorial in the southern part of the Okinawa battlefield, leftist activists threw a firebomb in a protest action. Neither the then crown prince nor princess was hurt.
After ascending to the throne in 1989, the emperor became the first Japanese monarch to visit the prefecture in April 1993 when he attended a national tree-planting ceremony there.
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 end of the war, according to the agency officials.
The couple views them as "four days that should never be forgotten," they said. Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, was commander in chief of the Japanese military before and during the war.
The emperor and empress have traveled to former battlefields to sooth some of the wounds of the war as well as to disaster-hit areas to console victims.
The agency is considering arranging more trips for such purposes before the emperor's abdication on April 30, 2019, the officials said. The emperor has signaled his wish to retire due to concern about his advanced age and weakening health, and the Chrysanthemum throne will be succeeded to by his elder son Crown Prince Naruhito, 58, on the following day.