Japanese emperor kicks off landmark visit to Vietnam

HANOI - Japan's emperor arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday for a whirlwind tour that will include a meeting with families of Japanese soldiers who stayed there after World War II.

The emperor and empress were received by Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh and guards of honour at the Hanoi airport, where national flags were displayed.

The 83-year-old Akihito and his wife, Michiko, are on their first visit to the country, the latest in a series of trips to former battlegrounds.

"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," Akihito said earlier at Tokyo's Haneda airport.

Akihito and Michiko are scheduled to visit Hanoi and the former imperial capital of Hue, according to the official programme.

On Thursday they are set to meet family members of some of the Japanese soldiers who stayed in Vietnam after the end of Japan's five-year occupation in 1945.

Many of the 700 soldiers joined forces with Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in his fight for independence from colonial ruler France.

They were ordered to return home by Japanese authorities after France was defeated in 1954, but the first wave was not allowed to bring their Vietnamese wives or children.

Their families were often left in poverty and faced accusations of treachery for setting up house with the former enemy.

"This is a very meaningful visit for both Japan and Vietnam as the emperor, who is expected to retire soon, shows his deep sympathy towards people who suffered from history, even if he can't apologise," Yuji Otabe, professor at Shizuoka University of Welfare and expert on Japanese modern history, told AFP.

Japan is a leading investor in rapidly industrialising Vietnam and its top aid donor.

The countries have grown cosy in recent years as they wage separate maritime disputes with China.

The alliance is even more important since the election of US President Donald Trump which has thrown regional relations into question, according to Netherlands-based Vietnam analyst Jonathan London.

"The election of Trump and all the chaos that that has and continues to generate has produced a profound destabilising element in the region," he told AFP.

"Vietnam and Japan are keen to promote or project greater strength and certainty about their relationship."

The pair fly on to Thailand on Sunday to pay respects to King Vajiralongkorn, who came to the throne after the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in October.

The tour comes after Akihito suggested last year he is ready to step down, citing his age and increasing frailty.