Vietnam laid out the red carpet for the monarch of its biggest provider of aid yesterday as Japanese emperor Akihito paid his first visit to the South-east Asian nation.
Accompanied by his wife, Empress Michiko, the 83-year-old monarch was welcomed by a guard of honour in Hanoi as well as young children waving Japanese and Vietnamese flags.
He visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and held talks with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.
Thanking Vietnam for the warm reception, Emperor Akihito said last night during the state banquet held in his honour: "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."
President Quang, in remarks to Yomiuri newspaper, urged both nations to beef up cooperation in clean and high-tech agriculture, and people-to-people exchanges. As of June last year, there were over 58,000 Vietnamese students in Japan.
The trip comes shortly after Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe visited the communist country in January, pledging six patrol vessels as part of a 120 billion yen (S$1.5 billion) loan to help the country secure its waters amid its territorial tussle with China.
Japan is Vietnam's second-largest investor after South Korea and fourth-largest trade partner. A Japanese consortium, alongside South Korean and Chinese companies, is now involved in building a metro line in the country.
Unlike China, which is Vietnam's biggest trading partner but whose assertive behaviour in the South China Sea regularly sparks street protests in Vietnam, Japanese influence in Vietnam is seen as benign, say analysts.
While some two million people died from famine during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam from 1940 to 1945, "there's almost no historical baggage in Vietnam's relationship with Japan", noted ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Le Hong Hiep.
Yet one of the highlights of the emperor's trip will be meeting a group most directly affected by Japan's imperial past. Today, he will meet Vietnamese families of former Japanese soldiers who remained in Vietnam after Japan's surrender in 1945 and helped train the revolutionary Viet Minh troops against French colonial forces.
These soldiers were not allowed to take their families with them back to Japan when the campaign ended in 1954. As a result, the wives and children left behind often struggled with poverty.
Emperor Akihito will fly to the central Vietnamese city of Hue tomorrow. From there, he will travel to Bangkok on Sunday to pay respects to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October after a long illness.
He will also meet Thailand's new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.