HANOI – Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on Thursday met in Hanoi with the Vietnamese spouses of Japanese soldiers who decided to stay behind in what is now known as Vietnam after WWII.
The meeting with the abandoned wives and offspring of Japanese war veterans is part of the Imperial Couple’s efforts to sooth some of the wounds inflicted by the war. Wives and children of Japanese soldiers faced discrimination and other hardships after their husbands returned to Japan.
The Emperor, 83, and Empress, 82, began their first visit to Vietnam on Tuesday to promote goodwill. They are scheduled to stay until Sunday, when they will travel from the ancient city of Hue to Thailand.
“I am moved because you care about the family members remaining in Vietnam,” 93-year-old Nguyen Thi Xuan told the Emperor, wiping away tears with her handkerchief.
After listening to how she struggled to raise her children, the Emperor said, “You have had a really hard time. I feel your pain.”
Some of the soldiers’ descendants held the hands of the Empress and sobbed.
“I appreciate your struggles over such a long time. I am very pleased to meet you all,” the Empress said.
Before the meeting, the couple visited Van Mieu, Hanoi’s ancient temple of literature, and met with Vietnamese who spent time studying in Japan or have plans to become nursing care workers there under a bilateral economic partnership agreement.
“What made you take an interest in Japan?” the Emperor asked one Vietnamese who had studied in Japan.
He also expressed gratitude to those seeking to becoming nursing care workers, who are now in high demand in Japan.
On Thursday night, the couple are scheduled to meet Nguyen Duc, a Vietnamese man who was surgically separated from his twin. The two were apparently born conjoined due to the aftereffects of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Duc, born in 1981, underwent surgery at the age of 7 to separate him from his brother. The operation was carried out with the support of Japanese doctors and Duc said he was honored to have the opportunity to meet the Imperial Couple. His brother Viet, who was confined to bed after the surgery, died in 2007.
Duc, 36, is married and has twin children. He has traveled to Japan several times and visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum last year.
Japan invaded French Indochina, part of which is now Vietnam, in 1940 during World War II. Of the Japanese troops deployed there, an estimated 600 stayed behind after Japan surrendered in August 1945. They later joined the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, a key figure in the foundation of the country, and fought against France’s attempt at recolonization in the First Indochina War between 1946 and 1954.
About half of these soldiers are believed to have died from disease or combat.
Many of the soldiers married local women and had children, but they then were not allowed to bring their families to Japan after the end of the First Indochina War.
The soldiers are estimated to have produced several hundred children who faced discrimination because of their ethnic background.
Xuan is one of the surviving Vietnamese wives.
She met her Japanese husband during World War II and recalled him asking her if she had a boyfriend.
“He was very gentlemanly,” she said in a recent interview.
The two got married in 1945 and her husband joined the war against France, prompting the family to move around northern Vietnam. One of their four children died at the age of 7 months.
Her husband left Vietnam in 1954 due to Vietnamese “government policy,” saying that if he was not back within a year he might not be able to return, Xuan said. She was not able to ascertain his whereabouts.
“I believed he would return. I was so young,” she said.
Xuan, who now lives on the outskirts of Hanoi, said she did everything to raise her three children, including working in a market and farming.
In 2005, she suddenly received a letter from her husband apologizing for his failure to return and expressing his gratitude for raising their children. He visited Xuan the following year with a Japanese woman he had married. It was their first reunion in half a century.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Xuan said. She said she asked him if he remembered Vietnam and he gave a brief answer saying he did.
“It is my destiny that we had to be separated,” she said.