When Nguyen Thi Xuan said goodbye to her Japanese husband in 1954, she thought he was going off for a year or two on another long assignment. She never imagined it would be more than half a century before she’d see him again.
Like many Vietnamese women married to Japanese soldiers, Xuan’s family was split up, victimized by the stormy relationship between the countries.
Today, the former foes enjoy strong bilateral ties, with Japan and Vietnam cooperating economically as well as in other areas, including defense and security.
In a sign of just how far the relationship has come, several surviving widows and families of former Japanese soldiers – including Xuan – will have an opportunity to meet with Japanese Emperor Akihito when he visits Vietnam for the first time this week.
Japanese troops invaded Vietnam in 1940 and remained there until Japan surrendered to the allies in 1945, ending World War II. Xuan’s husband, however, was among some 700 Japanese soldiers who remained in Vietnam after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence from French colonial rule in 1945.
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The Japanese soldiers helped train Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh to fight the French. When the Viet Minh defeated the colonial forces in 1954, Xuan’s husband was one of 71 former Japanese soldiers who had to leave the country without being able to bring their families. He left behind his two children and his pregnant 29-year-old wife.
”I thought he was on an assignment for one or two years, but we then had no information about him,” Xuan, 92, said recently.
She said that after not hearing from her husband for six years, she and her family thought he had died, and set up an altar to worship him.
Xuan had to raise her three children on her own by working on a rice farm in a village outside Hanoi. Villagers would call her Xuan Nhat, or Japanese Xuan, mocking her marriage to a Japanese man. Her children also were mocked.
”People called me Japanese son, son of a fascist. There used to be a lot of discrimination. But it is better now,” said Nguyen Xuan Phi, Xuan’s eldest son.
But anti-Japanese sentiment started to dissipate after communist Vietnam launched reforms in the mid-1980s and opened up to the outside world in the early 1990s.
In 2005, Xuan learned that her husband was alive and living in Japan through a Vietnamese woman living in the country with her Japanese husband, also a former soldier. The following year, Xuan’s husband, who had married a Japanese woman, arranged to visit her.
Xuan said she was very happy to see him again after all those years.
”You look great,” Xuan quoted her husband as telling her in still fluent Vietnamese when they reunited.
”Yes, I’m fine. I still have been waiting for you,” she said she told her husband, who was in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke and visited Xuan with his Japanese wife. Xuan has not remarried, and her husband died several years after his 2006 visit.
While Xuan’s family was unable to stay together, when the last group of Japanese soldiers was asked by communist North Vietnam to leave in 1960, they were allowed to bring their families.
But Hoang Thi Thanh Hoai’s father, the son of a Japanese soldier, decided to stay behind to take care of his Vietnamese grandmother. He did not reunite with his brothers and sisters in Japan until 1995, when he and Hoai spent six weeks in Japan visiting their relatives.
Hoai, who is now 43 and works at a Japanese eye clinic in Hanoi, decided to study Japanese after seeing how her father was unable to communicate with his siblings after reuniting with them.
”Learning Japanese helps me feel like a bridge of my two families, and more broadly a bridge between Vietnam and Japan,” she said.
Today, Japan is Vietnam’s biggest foreign donor and one of its top investors and trading partners.
Even defense and security ties have gotten closer in recent years, with both countries facing maritime disputes with China. During a visit to Vietnam in January, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to provide Vietnam with new patrol vessels.
The upcoming visit by Emperor Akihito, whose six-day trip starts Tuesday, further underscores the strength of the bilateral relationship.
Xuan is scheduled to meet Akihito on Thursday. For her, the opportunity to meet the emperor comes late in her life, but is something she’s looking forward to.
”I am too old, even my children are getting old,” Xuan said in her small home, the walls decorated with photos of her husband and other family members. ”I just hope the two governments could take better care of my grandchildren, who are also grandchildren of Japanese people, so that they could have an education and jobs.”