2016: Japanese Emperor's "Irei" Visit to Philippines

Die Verfassung Japans.  Artikel 9 der Friedensverfassung
Source: Asia Pacific Journal / Japan Focus, Volume 14 | Issue 5 | Number 4 | March 1, 2016
Mit freundlicher Erlaubnis von Japan Focus

Political Agenda Behind the Japanese Emperor and Empress’ “Irei” Visit to the Philippines

Kihara Satoru, Satoko Oka Norimatsu

Emperor Akihito and empress Michiko of Japan visited the Philippines from January 26 to 30, 2016. It was the first visit to the country by a Japanese emperor since the end of the Asia-Pacific War. The pair's first visit was in 1962 when they were crown prince and princess.

The primary purpose of the visit was to "mark the 60th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations" in light of the "friendship and goodwill between the two nations."1 With Akihito and Michiko's "strong wishes," at least as it was reported so widely in the Japanese media,2 two days out of the five-day itinerary were dedicated to "irei 慰霊," that is, to mourn those who perished under Imperial Japan's occupation of the country from December 1941 to August 1945.

The Japanese term "irei" literally means to "comfort the spirit" of the dead, and is used generally to mean notions such as to "mourn," "pay tribute (respect) to," and/or to "remember" those who die in abnormal situations like wars, natural disasters, accidents, and crimes. Another word commonly used for such purposes is "tsuito 追悼," – literally "to remember the dead with sadness." The latter term is regarded as more neutral and secular, and is used for those who die of natural causes as well. The two are often used interchangeably, but some problematize the term "irei" as having a religious meaning, one tied to Shintoism, and the two should be distinguished carefully.

Folklorist Shintani Takanori points out that notions of remembering the dead in Japanese culture, with its tradition of "enshrining the dead as gods," cannot be easily translated into Anglophone culture. The word "irei" has a connotation beyond "comforting the spirit" of the dead, which embeds in the word the possibility of the "comforted spirit being elevated to a higher spirituality" to the level of "deities/gods," which can even become "objects of spiritual worship."3

Shintani's argument immediately suggests that we consider its Shintoist, particularly Imperial Japan's state-sanctioned Shintoist significance when the word "irei" is used to describe the Japanese emperor and empress' trips to remember the war dead. This is particularly the case given the ongoing international controversy over Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines those who died for the emperor in battles during the period of the Empire of Japan, notably during the Asia-Pacific War. Following Shintani, in this article we italicize the term irei to call attention to the difficulty of translating the complex notion into an English term.4

Akihito and Michiko had paid such irei visits previously to Iwojima (1994), Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Okinawa and Tokyo (aerial bombing) to mark the 50th of the war end in 1995, Saipan (2005), and Palau (2015). The Japanese media across the board applauded their visit to the Philippines, as one that demonstrated the pair's sincere gesture of remorse over the scars of war. It is, however, necessary to carefully examine political calculations behind this visit.

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