Japan's emperor marks 20th anniversary on throne

TOKYO – Tens of thousands of well-wishers lined the streets of Tokyo on Thursday for a parade on the 20th anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Akihito, who urged Japanese not to forget the lessons of World War II.

More than 50,000 people gathered around the Imperial Palace for the parade, a concert and other events marking Akihito's ascent to the world's oldest hereditary throne. Akihito and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama spoke at a celebration later in the day.

Hatoyama then led the gathering in three cheers of "Banzai!" — a traditional Japanese cheer.

Speaking at a brief pre-anniversary news conference, the 75-year-old monarch said he was in good health, although he has been treated for cancer and other ailments and appeared frail.

When asked if he had any concerns for the country's future, he said he was worried young people are forgetting their history.

Akihito said Japan must not forget its past — and especially the turbulent years his father, Emperor Hirohito, was on the throne that included the country's invasion and occupation of several of its neighbors.

"What worries me most is that the history of the past will gradually be forgotten," he said. "The reign of my father began at a very difficult time," he added, noting that Japan invaded Manchuria six years after Hirohito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne. "There are many lessons that we can learn from the 60-some years of his reign."

"He viscerally knew the importance of peace," Akihito said.

In remarks at the government-sponsored celebration, Akihito also mentioned his contrition over the war.

"Some 3.1 million Japanese died in the war, and many lives of foreigners were also lost," he said. "We must not forget that today's Japan is built on those many sacrifices of the past."

Akihito assumed the throne after the death of his father on Jan. 7, 1989, but was not coronated until later that year because the country was officially in mourning.

Japan has often been criticized by its neighbors — who bore the brunt of Japanese colonialism — for whitewashing the country's role in World War II in its school textbooks. Although Akihito has visited China, he has yet to travel to South Korea, largely because of lingering animosities over the war.

Until Japan's surrender in 1945, Hirohito was officially considered a living god and loyalty to the throne was used to rally the nation behind the war, though historians generally agree that it was more often the generals, admirals and politicians who made the major decisions that set the country's disastrous course.

Over the past 20 years, Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, have grown quietly into their roles as ceremonial symbols of the nation, a definition of the Japanese monarchs imposed by U.S. military leaders during the Japanese occupation.

Akihito's primary role is that of a figurehead, presiding over rituals at palace shrines, meeting foreign dignitaries and swearing in new Cabinets.

His public comments are famously circumspect, avoiding subjects that might have political implications, and off-the-cuff remarks are almost unheard of. The questions he answered at the pre-anniversary news conference were submitted to the palace well in advance, and he had written answers prepared.