HANOI - Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in the capital of Vietnam on Tuesday evening on their first trip to the Southeast Asian country where they will meet with the Vietnamese wives and children of former Japanese soldiers to promote goodwill and soothe some of the wounds left over from World War II.
The weeklong tour will also take the Imperial Couple to Thailand to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October.
“In our relations with Vietnam, we welcomed as state guests to Japan His Excellency President Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 and His Excellency President Truong Tan Sang in 2014, and we have been kindly offered invitations to visit Vietnam,” the Emperor said at Tokyo’s Haneda airport before departure.
“It is our hope that our visit to Vietnam will contribute to the further development of the mutual understanding and friendly relations between our two countries,” he said.
Referring to their planned stopover in Thailand, the Emperor said, “The Empress and I enjoyed a close friendship of over 50 years with the late king.”
The couple left for Vietnam on a government aircraft for Hanoi in the morning, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako seeing them off at the airport.
It is their first overseas trip since the 83-year-old Emperor indicated his desire to abdicate in a video message broadcast last August in which he voiced concern that his age could one day prevent him from fulfilling his public duties.
The Emperor and Empress have traveled to several former World War II battlegrounds, such as Saipan in 2005, Palau in 2015 and the Philippines last year, to mourn those who died in the war.
Of the Japanese troops deployed to French Indochina during the war, an estimated 600 remained in what is now Vietnam after Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
Some joined the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, considered the founding father of modern Vietnam, in their fight to prevent France from taking control of its former colony. Half are believed to have been killed or died of illness during the First Indochina War between 1946 and 1954.
Some of the former Japanese soldiers married local women and had children. Still, they were not allowed to bring their families back to Japan when many returned after the end of the first Indochina conflict.
The number of children involved is estimated to be several hundred, with many facing discrimination because of their ethnic background.
The Emperor and Empress are scheduled to meet some of the families of the former soldiers in Hanoi on Thursday.
On the same day, the Imperial Couple is also expected to meet Nguyen Duc, a Vietnamese man born as a conjoined twin apparently due to the aftereffects of the defoliant Agent Orange, which was used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
The latest trip is the Emperor’s 20th taken abroad since he ascended the throne in 1989, with his previous overseas destination being the Philippines in January last year.
The Imperial Couple will attend a welcoming ceremony and meet Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and National Assembly Chair Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan on Wednesday. The Emperor is scheduled to address a banquet sponsored by the president later that day.
The couple will travel to Hue, in central Vietnam, on Friday afternoon after meeting with the country’s Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, earlier in the day.
On Saturday, the Emperor and Empress will visit Hue Palace and the memorial to Phan Boi Chau, a leader of the independence movement against French occupation.
The Emperor and Empress will then travel to Thailand on Sunday.
The Emperor is scheduled to lay flowers on the altar of the late Thai king at the national palace in Bangkok and meet new King Maha Vajiralongkorn that day. The royal families of the two countries have traditionally kept close relations.
They are scheduled to fly home next Monday.