Emperor, Empress Lay Flowers at Grave of Unknown Warrior; Expatriate Builds Bridges Between British Ex-POWs, Japan

The Emperor lays a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in London on Tuesday.

LONDON — The Emperor and Empress offered flowers at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at London’s Westminster Abbey on Tuesday, praying for the repose of all British soldiers who died in past wars. For one Japanese woman living in the United Kingdom, it was a particularly meaningful event.

“Many people must have been moved by the Imperial couple [offering flowers],” said Keiko Holmes, 76, who moved to Britain upon her marriage and has lived there for about 40 years. Since 1988, she has invited former British soldiers who were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and their families to visit Japan, aiming to help improve their feelings toward the country.

Holmes is from Kiwa (present-day Kumano) in Mie Prefecture. About 300 British captives were forced to work in a mine there during the war, and 16 died from disease and other causes. During a return visit, she learned that local residents had continued to mourn the victims several decades after the war.

Hoping to share with Britons the feelings and actions of the Japanese people, Holmes and others have organized about 30 tours and shown a total of about 500 people around former work sites, the locations of relevant companies and elsewhere.

Interacting with local residents and receiving apologies from them has been a source of comfort to the former prisoners.

In April 1998, Holmes was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her efforts. The following month, she was invited to attend a palace banquet for the current Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita, who were visiting the United Kingdom.

“Thank you for caring about Britain’s elderly,” the Emperor Emeritus said to her.

Courtesy of Keiko Holmes
Keiko Holmes

It was during that 1998 visit to the United Kingdom that some former prisoners of war turned their backs to the Imperial couple’s carriage procession in protest.

However, there were no such protests when the couple visited Britain in 2012 to attend a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. The Emperor Emeritus met Holmes at an event at that time as well, saying to her: “This is thanks to the efforts you and others have made all this time.”

The trips to Japan have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but trips will resume this autumn. Nine family members of former British prisoners are scheduled to visit Japan, but some people who lost their fathers or grandfathers still have negative feelings toward Japan.

“The Emperor and Empress placing flowers on the Grave of Unknown Warrior shows that the Japanese have not forgotten about the war,” Holmes said. “I hope the two countries will overcome the past and become even closer.”