Old loves highlight Japan and Vietnam's new bonds

By Reuters/My Pham   February 23, 2017 | 11:33 pm PT
'He promised to come back and pick us up. But he never could.'

Nguyen Thi Xuan, 94, who married a Japanese soldier during World War II, poses with a portrait of him at her house in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham

"This is my husband," said 94-year-old Nguyen Thi Xuan, holding up a pillow wrapped in a Vietnamese flag, with a Japanese army shirt pushed inside. She sleeps with it every night.

Xuan is among the few surviving widows of Japanese soldiers who were shipped home in the aftermath of World War II, many never to see their Vietnamese families again.

Next week, Japan's 83-year-old Emperor Akihito will meet some of the widows and their descendants, during one of many trips he has made to soothe the wounds of the war.

The story of the Vietnamese-Japanese families charts the ups and downs of the countries' ties at a time they are being brought closer by shared concern over the rise of China.

While many Vietnamese resented Japan's occupation in 1940, less bloody than many of its other conquests, some also saw it as a step to ending French colonial rule in Indochina.

Of more than one million Vietnamese deaths during the occupation, most were due to famine blamed on French and Japanese administrators rather than violence.

Some, like Xuan, fell in love.

"He spoke really good Vietnamese and often whispered Vietnamese songs," Xuan says of her husband, eyes twinkling.

They married in 1945, after Japan's defeat, when about 100,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed in Indochina.

Rather than return home, he stayed among some 600 former soldiers recruited by liberation leader Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh to bring military expertise to fight the French.

About half the Japanese died in fighting or from disease, but when the Viet Minh beat the French in 1954, the Vietnamese government decided the survivors should be sent home.

Torn apart

Xuan's husband was in the first group of 71 soldiers to go home in 1954. They were not allowed to take families. Others left in 1961 and could take families, but by then some had had children with more than one wife. Some had to be left behind.

The final goodbye to her father is burned in the memory of 63-year-old Nguyen Thi Van.

"He promised to come back and pick us up. But he never could," she said. He died seven years after returning to Japan.

The separated families struggled.

Japanese blood was no asset when war broke out between North Vietnam and the U.S., now Japan's ally.

"They called me a Japanese fascist and then we fought," said Nguyen Xuan Phi, Xuan's oldest son, describing his school days.

The situation improved after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The end of the Cold War brought a rapid improvement in relations with Japan.

Japan has been Vietnam's biggest aid donor over four decades, Vietnam's investment promotion agency says. For private investment, it ranks second to South Korea.

Both Vietnam and Japan have maritime territorial disputes with China and fear its growing regional weight. Both also back the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, whose future is in doubt after U.S. withdrawal.

Although Akihito has no political power, his overseas trips often have diplomatic overtones.

His first visit to Vietnam follows one in January by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who promised Vietnam six new coastguard patrol vessels, among other things.

Akihito's visit will begin on Tuesday.

After Xuan's husband left, she never had another relationship, she said. In 2005, the two were briefly reunited when he and his Japanese family came to visit.

"I felt contented to see him again, though only once," Xuan said. "The past is past. Now is the time to move on."

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