TOKYO – The emperor of Japan visited a remote Pacific island Thursday to pray for thousands of Japanese and American soldiers who died during the World War II battle of Pelelilu.
Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko laid bouquets of white flowers in front of a memorial for Japanese victims after arriving by helicopter on Pelelilu island in the western Pacific nation of Palau. They later prayed at a separate memorial for Americans.
"Our thoughts go out to all those who went to the battlefields to defend their countries, never to return home," Akihito said in a statement before his flight to Palau on Wednesday. "We must never forget that those beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean have such a tragic history."
Akihito, who is 81, was 11 years old at the end of the war. His father, Hirohito, was emperor at the time.
Peleliu is one of several islands where Japanese soldiers fought to the death during the final year of the war. The three-month battle of Peleliu, which started in September 1944, left about 10,000 Japanese and 1,700 Americans dead.
One Japanese survivor, 95-year-old Kiyokazu Tsuchida, travelled to the island for the imperial visit.
"Of the 34 survivors, sadly I'm the only one who made it back here," he said Wednesday in an interview from the island with Japanese broadcaster NHK. After a moment of silence before the memorial, he added: "My perished fellow soldiers must be all delighted to see the emperor."
The visit by the emperor highlights the slow-moving search for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers.
Only half of the 2.4 million Japanese who died overseas have been recovered. Of those, about 300,000 are believed to be lost at sea and unrecoverable.
Officials cite a lack of documentation and geographical and political reasons for the delay. In recent years, veterans groups and relatives of the dead have pressured the government to do more, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised stepped-up efforts.
In Palau, half of the estimated 16,200 war-dead are still unaccounted for more than 60 years after the search began in 1953, according to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Six sets of remains were excavated during the latest search last month.
Palau, which lies about 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of the Philippines, was ruled by Japan for about 30 years after World War I.
The emperor's visit in the 70th anniversary year of the war's end follows a visit to Saipan, another World War II battlefield in the Pacific, in 2005, the 60th anniversary year. He also prayed for Japanese and U.S. war-dead in Iwo Jima in 1994.