Relations between Vietnam and Japan have come a long way since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1973, let alone a century ago.

Today, Japan is one of Vietnam’s largest investors with hundreds of thousands of enterprises operating all over the country in sectors ranging from electronics to the apparel industry.

Travel between the two countries has become significantly easier with numerous flight options connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to cities in Japan.

The first affiliations between two countries, however, can be traced back to over a century ago when the world was caught in the throes of imperialism and colonialism.

At the outset of the 20th century, with aspirations to save the Vietnamese nation from slavery, prominent intellectuals at the time felt that significant reform was the only way to turn the tide.

Phan Boi Chau, pioneer of Vietnamese 20th century nationalism, formed a revolutionary organisation called Duy Tan (Reformation Society) with the aim of ‘restoring Vietnam and forming an independent government.’

Chau and his Reformation Society sought assistance from Japan, a nation with similar culture and close proximity, well on its way to becoming a prosperous country. The Society agreed to send Chau to Japan to ask for their help in fighting against French colonialists.

Initially Japan agreed to help by training human resources, so Chau and his comrades called for young Vietnamese to study in Japan. It soon evolved into a large social movement, called Dong Du, or Travel East for Study.

Just as the movement was gaining strength with 200 intellectuals studying in Japan, France signed a Treaty with Japan, forcing the group to disperse.

Professor Chuong Thau, who has studied Chau for more than 50 years, said despite its relatively short four-year duration, the Dong Du movement is widely considered the greatest achievement in the revolutionary career of Phan Boi Chau and his Reformation Society.

“The movement trained new revolutionary personnel, fostering high enthusiasm and remarkable endurance. They always strove to learn for progress,” Thau said.

“The movement also represented a historical landmark for the relationship between Japan and Vietnam, treasured in the pre-modern history between the two countries,” Thau added.

According to Thau, Chau was Vietnam’s greatest reform-minded revolutionary in the early 20th century.

“Phan Boi Chau advocated for the establishment of ‘a new Vietnam’, he was the first to look out to the high sea with Pacific Ocean vision, the first to entertain thoughts of an international coalition to save the country from colonial powers,” said Thau.

According to Dao Tien Thi from the Educational Publishing House, the Dong Du movement not only ignited a patriotic flame and the will to gain independence but also contributed to changing the course of Vietnamese history in many aspects, especially by inspiring a shift in people’s thinking.

“The movement helped rid of dogmatic thinking, changing instead to focus on reality, integrating the country into the regional community and the world at large. It also stimulated the transition from monarchist thought to democracy,” said Thi.

“Culturally, this was Vietnam’s first non-Chinese cultural contact,” Thi added.-VNA