Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako on Saturday paid tribute to the war dead at local memorial sites in Okinawa, marking their first visit to the island prefecture since his enthronement in 2019.

At the National War Dead Peace Mausoleum in the city of Itoman, where the remains of some 180,000 war dead are kept, the imperial couple offered flowers and met with around 20 people, including surviving family members, observing the scene.

Okinawa was the site of the biggest ground battle on Japanese soil during World War II that cost an estimated 200,000 lives, half of them civilians.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki (second from L) greets Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako upon their arrival at Naha Airport on Oct. 22, 2022. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

The southern island prefecture was occupied by the United States after the war until 1972, with this year marking 50 years since its reversion to Japan.

"When I think about the tragedy of the Battle of Okinawa, and the gratitude for the peace we enjoy today, I am once again reminded of the importance of peace," the imperial couple said through their aide.

At a commemorative ceremony held in May, the emperor, who attended virtually, expressed sympathy for the people of Okinawa over the devastation they suffered during the war.

The imperial couple on Saturday also visited the Cornerstone of Peace, where the names of the war dead are inscribed, and took in an exhibit on the Battle of Okinawa at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum.

The emperor reportedly commented that Okinawa "truly had a tragic history."

In the evening, the couple met with officials involved in the ceremony commemorating Okinawa's reversion to Japan.

During their two-day visit to the island prefecture with the empress, the emperor is also scheduled to give a speech at the opening ceremony of art and culture festivals in Ginowan on Sunday.

The emperor had previously visited Okinawa five times, first in 1987 and last in 2010, before he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne more than three years ago. The empress last visited the prefecture with him in 1997.

His father, former Emperor Akihito, has long felt sympathy for Okinawa. Since visiting in 1975 for the first time as the crown prince with his wife, now former Empress Michiko, he made 11 trips to the island prefecture up till 2018.

The former emperor and empress offer a silent prayer every year on June 23, a date marking the end of the Battle of Okinawa, as do the current emperor and empress.

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