HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday for a visit to promote goodwill and soothe some of the wounds of World War II by meeting with the abandoned wives of former Japanese soldiers.
The 83-year-old Akihito, the first-ever Japanese emperor to visit Vietnam, will be given a red carpet welcome by Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Wednesday.
During their six-day visit, the imperial couple is scheduled to meet with a dozen surviving widows and families members of Japanese war veterans. The wives and their families used to face discrimination because the women had married Japanese men.
Japanese troops invaded Vietnam in 1940 and remained there until Japan surrendered to the allies in 1945, but some 700 Japanese soldiers, most of them married to Vietnamese women, stayed in Vietnam after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence from French colonial rule shortly after that.
The Japanese soldiers provided Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh with their military expertise to fight the French. By the time the Viet Minh defeated the colonial forces in 1954, placing the North under Communist rule, about half of the Japanese soldiers died from fighting or illness and the first group of 71 had to leave without being able to bring their families in 1954. The rest had to leave in 1960, but this time with their families because Japan was on the other side of the Cold War.
Despite their stormy relations in the past, the two countries have steadily improved their ties since Vietnam's Communists launched reform policies in the mid-1980s and opened up to the world in early 1990s.
Today, Japan is Vietnam's biggest foreign donor and one of its top investors and trading partners.
The two countries have enjoyed closer military and security ties in recent years, with both facing separate maritime disputes with China. The emperor's visit follows one by Japanese Prime Minister in January during which he pledged to provide Vietnam with new patrol vessels.
"The state visit to Vietnam by the Japanese emperor and empress is an event of symbolic significance, a historic milestone in the friendship and cooperation between the two countries," Vietnam's government said in a statement on its website Tuesday. "It demonstrates the sentiment and interests of Japan to the country and people of Vietnam."
The visit will help to further promote the strategic partnership and understanding between the two countries, it said.
Despite his age, Emperor Akihito has maintained a busy schedule, greeting foreign dignitaries and traveling overseas and around Japan.
He has attempted to soothe some of the wounds from World War II, traveling to China early in his reign. He has visited other major battlefields overseas — the western Pacific island of Saipan in 2005, the western Pacific nation of Palau in 2016 and the Philippines earlier this year.
The emperor is scheduled to meet with other Vietnamese leaders and tour Vietnam's ancient capital of Hue before heading Sunday to Thailand, where he will pay respects to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October, and meet with new King Maha Vajiralongkorn before going home.