The geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region is undergoing perceptible changes and as a result nations posited in the region are constantly reorienting their foreign policy strategies in response to the changed situation. In this new equation of evolving power relationship, it is interesting that three countries – India, Japan and Vietnam – have found mutually satisfying synergy in economic and security domains. This is demonstrated by mutual exchange of visits by heads of governments and senior ministers on continuing basis and sharing of common viewpoints on a host of issues – bilateral, regional and global.
In this new equation, the recent first-ever visit to Vietnam by a Japanese Emperor and Empress is a historical event of great significance to the two countries’ traditional relationship. In December 2013, the Emperor and Empress also paid a visit to India.
Though Imperial visits have no direct relations with the policies of governments, the symbolism attached to such visits elevates the bilateral ties to a higher level.
At the hindsight, both Japan and Vietnam sound belonging to two different worlds, Japan being a vibrant democracy and Vietnam a socialist country with the Communist Party determining the nation’s affairs. What then explains this bonhomie between the two? This is because relations between the two countries have been greatly influenced by outside powers, thereby giving a new twist to the geo-economic logic that disapproved a sort of relationship that two countries with different political systems such as Japan and Vietnam have made that possible.
Both the countries did not have a favourable historical past. When Vietnam confronted Western (read French) colonialism in the late 19th century, Vietnamese nationalists took refuge in Japan and were heavily influenced by Japan’s economic development and resistance to the West. But when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Vietnam during the Pacific War in the 1940s and controlled it until its surrender in 1945, and later Japan allowed the US B-52 bombers to use its Okinawa base, Vietnam was displeased with Japan’s unfriendly act. Today, the story is dramatically different and Japan-Vietnam relationship now is a significant landmark in the emergence of a new Asia.
The visit of the Emperor and Empress came at a time when bilateral ties have seen an upswing in economic and strategic fronts. Many Japanese companies have built factories in Vietnam as Vietnam started rejecting to welcome Chinese companies following territorial dispute over South China Sea and subsequent rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnamese cities. Today, Vietnamese are among the largest groups of foreign students in Japan.
The Emperor is in failing health as he advances in age. The Emperor is 83-years-old and Empress 80-years-old. The Imperial couple’s Vietnam visit was also combined with a visit to Thailand, what it looks to be the couple’s last overseas visit while on throne, if his abdication wishes as hinted take effect. While in Bangkok, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko met the new Thai King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and paid respect to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016, with who the Imperial couple enjoyed a close friendship for more than 50 years. While in Vietnam, the couple met with surviving widows and children of Japanese soldiers who stayed in Vietnam after World War II, but then had to leave after the communists took control of the north in 1954.
Japan-Vietnam relations date back to the 16th century with the presence of the first Japanese street in Vietnam. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, a Japanese settlement was established in Noi An, a port town in central Vietnam that thrived as a trading hub in the region. The series of exchange of visits in recent times have only reinforced their mutual trust and friendship. Japan is the biggest aid provider for Vietnam and has played a key role in its economic development. Japan has also been cooperating with Vietnam in supporting its defence and maritime capability by donating patrol vessels and constructing the Vietnam-Japan University, besides operating many Japanese businesses in the Southeast Asian country. Bilateral cooperation in economics, human resources training and infrastructure improvement contributed to the good relationship between the two countries. No wonder, the Imperial couple’s visit to Vietnam was one of the most-awaited one for both people and political circles in both countries.
When Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited Japan in March 2014, he had invited the Emperor to pay a visit to Vietnam. Subsequently several more requests were also made. Finally in September 14, 2016 the announcement was made about the Imperial couple’s visit on 28 February 2017. In 2007, then Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet had also visit Japan. The Emperor and Empress have travelled to several former World War II battlegrounds, such as Saipan in 2005, Palau in 2015 and the Philippines in January 2016, to mourn those who died in the war. The Imperial couple’s Vietnam trip is the 20th taken abroad since Emperor Akihito ascended the throne in 1989 and possibly could be the last during his reign. Vietnam is the 36th country the Emperor visited during his reign.
Earlier, Prince Fumihito, second in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and his wife Princess Kiko, visited Vietnam in 1999, and Crown Prince visited the country in 2009. When the Emperor met with Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party in Tokyo in 2015, he had made a reference to the Vietnam War and inquired about the country’s progress in clearing landmines from the conflict. It transpires, therefore, that the Imperial family is familiar with Japan’s historical ties with Vietnam and that makes understanding each other easy.
Deepening ties with Japan has become more important for Vietnam because of two main factors: coping with the Chinese challenge and therefore building a solid defence partnership and capacity building in the maritime domain; and welcoming Japanese companies as partners in its economic development process. Japan-Vietnam bonhomie in the economic domain is working well since Vietnam adopted in 1986 a “socialist market economy under state guidance” with a policy known as “Doi Moi” (reform), and has promoted internationalisation and liberalisation of its economy.
During the Pacific War, many Japanese soldiers were deployed to French Indo-China and an estimated 600 remained in what is now Vietnam. Some joined the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, considered the founding father of modern Vietnam, to fight the French. Almost half were killed or died of illness during the first Indo-China War between 1946 and 1954. Some of the former Japanese soldiers married local women and had children but were not allowed to bring their families back to Japan when many returned after the end of the first Indo-China conflict. The number of children involved is estimated to be several hundred and many face discrimination because of their ethnic background. In a gesture towards reconciliation, the Emperor and Empress met some of the families of the former Japanese soldiers in Hanoi and inquired about their welfare.
While in Vietnam, the Imperial couple met the Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, National Assembly Chair Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. They also travelled to Hue in central Vietnam to visit Hue Palace and the memorial to Phan Boi Chau, a leader of the independence movement against the French occupation. The Imperial couple also visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to offer flowers in memory of the nation’s founder.
One significant engagement of the Imperial couple was their meeting the victim of Agent Orange, a former conjoined twin who symbolises the lingering effects of war. Nguyen Duc, 36, was born conjoined to his brother, Viet, and their condition is believed to have been caused by the effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed over the country by the US forces during the Vietnam War. The twins had received treatment in Japan in 1986 and were surgically separated in 1988 under the care of Japanese and Vietnamese doctors. While Nguyen got married and is a father of two now, his twin brother Viet died in 2007. In Japan, Nguyen is known as a symbol of the horrors of the Vietnam War, which ended 42 years ago. He visited Hiroshima in October 2016 on the invitation of a Japanese citizen group, first time after the surgical separation from Viet, where he offered wishes for peace. This is much appreciated by the Japanese people. Therefore, the Emperor meeting him and his family personally makes the experience special.
In a speech at a banquet sponsored by President Quang, the Emperor observed: “It is my sincere hope that our visit will contribute to further deepening our mutual understanding and strengthening the ties of friendly relations between the people of Vietnam and the people of Japan.” Indeed, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1973, bilateral ties have assumed robustness in many fronts. As many as 180,000 Vietnamese citizens now reside in Japan, including students and technical interns. Japanese cuisine, music, film, manga, etc. are popular in Vietnam. Similarly, Vietnamese culture is getting equal popularity in Japan.
Seen from all perspectives, the visit of the Emperor and Empress was indeed meaningful as it showed their deep sympathy towards people who suffered from history. The words of sympathy extended towards the families who Japanese soldiers left behind leaving them to face accusations of treachery for setting up house with the former enemy surely lifted their spirit and soothe some of the wounds from World War II.
The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either that of the ICCR or Government of India.