RIGA - Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will visit the three Baltic countries May 24 - 27 as part of a 10-day European tour. The royal couple will spend one day each in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on what is the first trip of any Japanese monarch to a former Soviet republic. "The visit of the Japanese Emperor to any country, especially to Estonia, as a small Baltic Sea country, is a noteworthy event," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in a statement. "A visit of the Emperor of Japan is one of the greatest marks of respect that the Japanese nation pays to other countries."
The sentiment was echoed by Aiva Rozenberga, a spokeswoman for Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
"This is really a historic event," she said, adding that the visit by the only reigning emperor in the world signifies Japan's recognition of the accomplishments of the three Baltic countries since they re-gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, each creating a stable democracy and market economy.
"The moment in 1991 when the news came to us that these three countries had regained their independence is still fresh in my memory," Empress Michiko was recently quoted by wire reports as saying.
Japan's charge d'affaires in Estonia, Toshiko Shimizu, said that on their trip the royal couple hope to promote cooperation between the Baltic states and Japan.
On May 24, in Tallinn, the royal couple, along with President Ilves and his wife, will take part in a state luncheon at the Kadriorg Art Museum, after which they will head to the Song Festival Grounds to attend a choral concert and meet members of the public. Audiences who want to catch a glimpse of the royals are requested to gather there from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.. The couple will make another public appearance at the Town Hall Square at 6:30 p.m.
The following day the Latvian President will welcome Japan's Emperor and Empress at Riga Castle. They will attend an official luncheon and visit the Occupation Museum. At 1 p.m. they are scheduled to lay a wreath at the Freedom Monument and meet the public.
The Latvian spokesman said the emperor and empress expressed interest in Latvian culture after learning that its president has written several books on folk songs.
On May 26, in Lithuania, the royals' only official meeting will be with President Valdas Adamkus. While in the country the couple will attend a folk festival in Vilnius, and honor victims of January 1991 's when Soviet tanks rolled into the Lithuanian capital to try to quash the country's fledgling independence movement 's at Antakalnis cemetery.
Their first public appearance in Vilnius will be at 12.10 p.m. near the Presidential Palace at Daukanto Square where the Emperor will speak and spend two to three minutes with the crowds. Later, at 5.35 p.m., they will arrive at Cathedral Square to attend the Skamba Skamba Kankliai folk festival.
The emperor will also visit a Vilnius monument dedicated to Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat during World War II who saved thousands of Jews by issuing transit visas to escape the Nazis.
Sugihara, who resided in the southern Lithuanian city of Kaunas in 1939-40, went against the orders of the Japanese government by issuing visas for some 10,000 Polish, Lithuanian and German Jews.
The Emperor of Japan is a national symbol and a ceremonial figurehead in a constitutional monarchy. As the eldest daughter of a prominent mining company owner, Empress Michiko was the first commoner to marry into a Japanese Imperial Family.
The royal couple's interests encompass broad areas of learning and culture. They attend annual award ceremonies of the Japan Academy and the Japan Academy of Arts.
The three Baltic countries maintained diplomatic relations with Japan before the countries lost their independence to the Soviet Union in 1940. In the inter-war period, Japan was the only Asian country with its embassy in Latvia, which also served Estonia and Lithuania. Japan was one of the first countries to recognize Latvia's independence from Russia in 1919.
The Baltic countries now cooperate with Japan in areas of trade, culture, sports, and education.
Estonian President Arnold Ruutel visited Japan in 2004, while his Lithuanian counterpart Valdas Adamkus visited Japan in 2001. Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks visited Japan last year and is preparing for another trip at the end of this month.