Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stood, heads bowed

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When Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stood, heads bowed, at a seaside cliff on Saipan 60 years after a bloody World War Two battle, their silent prayers conveyed a message many felt resonated louder than words.

On that June 2005 visit – one of many war-related trips during Akihito’s three-decade reign – the royal couple paid their respects at memorials not only for Japanese but also American and Korean war dead.

“I think the emperor felt heartfelt pain and mourning for those who died, and that we must not forget the tragedy of the war and should convey that to the generations who have not experienced it,” Shingo Haketa, former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, which manages the monarch’s affairs, told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

Haketa and a half-dozen other associates of the emperor recounted to Reuters how after the death of his father on Jan. 7, 1989, Akihito carved out an active role as symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation.

Although he cannot directly influence government policy, Akihito has created a broader consciousness of Japan’s wartime past, experts say.

That is a sharp departure from the legacy of his father, Hirohito – once revered as a “living god” in whose name Japan fought World War Two. Hirohito’s comments about the conflict were vague after Japan’s defeat, and he remained a divisive figure because of his role.

Akihito, 84, will abdicate next year. On Aug. 15, he will for the last time as reigning emperor take part in an annual memorial ceremony honoring war dead held on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

His retirement comes amid tensions with China and the Koreas, and his legacy appears threatened by a Japanese drift to the right mirrored in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative agenda.

Japanese political leaders have expressed regret, remorse and apology for their country’s wartime actions. But remarks by the emperor have a different weight, experts say.

“Emperors are like popes – their gestures carry a symbolic message,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Japan’s Josai International University.