OSAKA — Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui arrived in Japan on Sunday evening for a five-day stay to have a medical checkup, a visit that China says will be met with a “necessary reaction.”
Lee, accompanied by well over a dozen people including his wife Tseng Wen-hui, close aides and a doctor, left Taipei’s international airport for Osaka, where the former president will stay while in Japan.
Upon his arrival at Osaka airport, he waved to the media, saying in Japanese, “Thank you very much.” Lee was met by about 300 cheering well-wishers waving Taiwanese and Japanese flags. He was also treated as a VIP by airport staff, who bypassed normal routes in whisking the 78-year-old former president through immigration and customs formalities.
Earlier, during the flight to Osaka from Taipei, Lee told Japanese reporters traveling with him that he sees his visit to Japan as “one opportunity” for Japan to demonstrate its leadership in promoting and protecting human rights. “I hope that Japan does take an initiative in promoting and protecting human rights, humanitarian values, universal freedom and democracy,” he said.
Lee’s struggle to obtain an entry visa for his five-day visit for medical treatment at a Japanese heart clinic was top news in Taiwan and in Japan, largely because China protested vehemently that Lee was using the trip only as an excuse to promote Taiwanese independence.
“But I have no political motive in visiting Japan,” Lee, who thanked the Japanese media and people for their support in helping him get a visa, said.
Asked about his mood after so many ups and downs before getting permission to enter Japan, the former president answered in Japanese: “Heijo na kimochi da,” literally, “I have no particular feelings one way or another.”
Officials noted later that Lee has no appointments to meet with any Japanese politicians or political leaders and has no plans to give a news conference.
Lee is slated to undergo a heart examination Tuesday at a cardiology center in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture — a followup to an angioplasty he had in Taipei last November. The heart surgeon in charge of the checkup, Kazuaki Mitsudo, was present during Lee’s angioplasty last year.
If no irregularities are found, Lee is expected to return to Osaka within the day to rest. The result of the checkup is expected to be announced by the doctor. Lee will return to Taipei on Thursday, provided he needs no further treatment.
On Friday, Japan finally granted Lee a visa on humanitarian grounds after days of agonizing over the sensitive political decision. China has warned Tokyo not to allow Lee to visit for any reason, claiming he uses overseas trips to campaign against China’s avowed goal of reunification with Taiwan.
Dai Bingguo, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, canceled his planned visit to Japan in late April, apparently in protest of Tokyo’s visa decision.
Given Beijing’s strong opposition to Lee’s visit, Tokyo attached conditions such as prohibiting Lee from traveling to places other than Kurashiki or engaging in political activities. He is being allowed to stay in Osaka because it was thought difficult to find a facility in Kurashiki that could ensure his safety.
Lee is expected to go see cherry blossoms in the compound of the Finance Ministry’s Mint Bureau, famous for its “arcade” of cherry blossoms along a river in Osaka, and to visit Osaka Castle, diplomatic sources said. He is also expected to issue an arrival statement sometime after reaching his Osaka hotel.
Although Lee retired from politics almost a year ago, he remains immensely popular in Japan, partly because he speaks Japanese fluently and sought to intensify close but informal relations with Japan during his 12 years in office.
Apparently mindful of the sensitivity of his visit, Lee, an outspoken critic of Beijing, kept his trip low-profile. Taiwan’s media, however, have hailed Japan’s decision to grant Lee a visa as a diplomatic victory over China. Lee refused to comment when pressed by reporters about his hard-won trip.
Last week, hours after Japan issued Lee a visa, the United States announced that Lee would be allowed in early May to travel to Cornell University, where he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics in 1968. After Lee’s last visit to Cornell in 1995, China recalled its ambassador from Washington, postponed a series of high-level meetings and held threatening military exercises near Taiwan.
China has yet to announce any specific moves in reaction to Lee’s May trip to Washington, but Beijing on Saturday urged Washington to “correct its mistake” and recognize the “seriousness and danger” of giving Lee a visa.
Lee’s opponents in Taiwan have often criticized him for being too friendly toward Japan, the island’s former colonial ruler. He has irked those who condemn the 50-year-long colonial era, which ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945, by saying that he was a Japanese citizen until the age of 22.
Lee is widely credited with spearheading Taiwan’s democratic transition. His international prestige is one of the reasons Beijing is so strongly opposed to other countries allowing him to visit.
Given the diplomatic row surrounding Tokyo’s visa decision, the former president is sure to face intense media coverage while in Japan.
Lee, who studied agricultural economics at the precursor to Kyoto University, has long wanted to visit Japan. He last visited as vice president en route back from a trip to Central America and South America in September 1985 on a short stopover that did not require an entry visa.
During the stay starting from Sunday, Lee initially had hoped to visit Kyoto as well, but it was not allowed. Japan switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1972.
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