Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

India-Japan Mutual Interactions : An Overview

Sushila Narsimhan

The year 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the Japan-India cultural exchange agreement concluded in 1957. In April 2005, the Prime Ministers of the two countries - Manmohan Singh and Junichiro Koizumi – signed an agreement in designating the year 2007 as the ‘India-Japan Friendship Year’ with the aim of strengthening cultural and academic exchanges and promote people-to-people contacts. The basic theme of the year — long celebration will comprise of a series of cultural activities organized jointly by scholars and artists of the two countries. This essay throws light on people-to-people contacts and interactions at various levels and different periods of time — since the introduction of Buddhism in Japan to the establishment of India-Japan diplomatic relations. These contacts served as conduits for facilitating mutual interaction through their visits and created conditions for bringing India and Japan closer to each other.

Early contacts: The Buddhist link

The network of Silk Route winding through the high mountain passes, deserts, deep rivers and seas, while facilitating trade and migration also served as channels for the flow of ideas between India and the outside world, thus beginning the process of globalization in which we all live today. Only the techniques and agents of globalization were different. Rabindranath Tagore during his visit to Japan recalled how the Indian Buddhists crossed over the seas braving difficulties not only of climate and geography, but also of language and custom. Yet, they went forward, strong in their belief in man’s fellowship and proved the truth of their belief in living deeds.

Although Buddhism entered Japan in 6th century AD, direct historical links between the people of India and Japan were established only after the arrival of a South Indian priest Bodhisena in Japan in 736 AD. It is a pity that he did not return to India to share his experiences. Japanese awareness of rich Indian culture and rare Buddhist artifacts earned for India the designation of ‘Tenjiku’ or the Heavenly Land. Hence, the arrival of a learned sage from the ‘Heavenly Land of Buddha’ elicited excitement among the Japanese and soon Bodhisena was appointed as the Chief Priest of Nara’s famous Todaiji temple. Bodhisena lived there for 24 years until his death in 760 AD. A stone tower in Ryosenji temple bears an epitaph with words “south Indian Brahman priest from Tenjiku.” During Bodhisena’s tenure, Nara became a great centre of learning and cultural activities having around 1,000 disciples taking lessons in Japanese language, logic and Sanskrit. Bodhisena taught Sanskrit which enabled the Japanese to translate Buddhist scriptures thereby contributing to the richness of Japanese literature. Along with Buddhism, several aspects of Hindu Vedic thought and religion also entered. The Buddhist temples in Japan, besides having the idols of Buddha and Bodhisattava, also have many Hindu gods and goddesses, such as Brahma, Indra, Varuna, Ganesha, Kubera, Shiva, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi. Various aspects of Indian art, sculpture and painting similar to those found at Bharahut, Sanchi, Sarnath, and the cave temples of Ajanta, Badami, Elephenta, and Ellora, also trickled into Japan. Despite their foreign origin, both the Buddhist and Hindu ideas were accepted, modified and assimilated by the Japanese as part of their indigenous culture. This smooth blending may be attributed to the common Asian mindset, shared modes of thinking, commonality of belief systems and value patterns. The weddings in Japan may be held in Shinto or Western style, but 80% of funerals are performed according to Buddhist rites. The usual Japanese answer is: “We Japanese are born Shinto, but become Buddhist when we die.” Today, both Varanasi and Bodhgaya, have become catalysts energizing the spiritual and cultural bonds between the two countries and form important itineraries among Japanese visiting India. Many Japanese Indologists are said to have expressed that after their demise the ashes of their mortal remains be immersed in River Ganges in Varanasi.

In such Buddhist-inspired history of Japan, it was not possible for the Japanese to remain ignorant of the tumultuous events taking place in India. The news of Mohammad Ghori’s inroads into India and the wanton destruction of Nalanda in 1193, was slow to reach Japan, but when it did, it shell-shocked the Japanese. Around that time, Japan too was in the grip of a massive civil war (Gempei War, 1180-1185), causing widespread disorder and wreckage, when the venerated Todaiji of Nara was also not spared. The Japanese had barely recovered from the after-effects of the Gempei War that the Mongol invader Khubilai Khan attacked Japan twice in 1274 and 1281. Though Khubilai Khan had to abandon the operations halfway on account of a severe typhoon, hailed by the Japanese as the “divine wind,” the incident had exposed Japan’s vulnerability to outside invasion. The protagonists of Buddhist faith attributed all these internal and external disasters to the last phase of Dharma (saddharma-vipralopa) and in desperation turned to revive Buddhism. Many Japanese Buddhist organizations sent priests to study the condition of Buddhism and related sites in India. Myoe Shonin Koben (1173-1232), a venerated priest of Kozanji in Kyoto, undertook journey following Hiuen Tsang’s land route to reach India, but the efforts went in vain. Many tried the sea route via the South Seas and landed in Siam (Thailand), Combodia, and Batavia (Indonesia) and mistook the Buddhist pagodas, statues and relics to be the landmarks of the ‘Land of Buddha.’ All this shows that until the beginning of modern era, India was really the Tenjiku, a mystical land, far and unreachable!

Discovery of sea routes: India as a maritime link

India’s ‘Tenjiku’-image, which had a connotation of spirituality and tranquility, began to change when European merchants, following Vasco da Gama’s (1460-1524) discovery of sea route, started gathering in Asian waters from the farthest corners of the world in search of Indian tea and textiles, spices, and Chinese silk and porcelain. The new routes via the Indian Ocean pushed Europe’s commercial traffic to Southeast and Far East Asia. The flow of Indian spices and rare artifacts projected India as an affluent and a prosperous country having widespread trading network with Europe and Asia. Though these networks were later distorted and ruptured with the advent of European powers in India and Southeast and East Asia, it is important to revive these vibrant and dynamic historical links because it is in consonance with Indian history, geography and cultural links and have placed India in a very advantageous position while pursuing its ‘Look East’ policy and cementing ties with ASEAN.

Along with the explorers and traders, came missionaries like Francisco Xavier (1506-1552). In 1549, after preaching Christianity for three years in Goa, Xavier sailed to Japan with a Japanese adventurer named Anjiro (baptized as Paolo). Thus, Anjiro is the first Japanese to have actually set foot on Indian soil! After preaching Christianity in Japan for two years, Xavier decided to return to Goa but died on way in Sancian, near Canton. His mortal remains were later brought to Goa and enshrined in Bom Jesus Church. From 1549 to 1630’s, or until the adoption of seclusion policy by Japan’s Tokugawa warrior regime, Goa continued to serve as an important missionary link and source of information about India and the West. Today, Goa has become a thriving hub for India-Japan cultural and business collaborations, besides being an exotic tourist spot and an important Christian pilgrim centre.

India’s disasters: Lessons for Japan

The Japanese images of India took a sharp turn when India came under foreign rule, first the Muslims and then the British. For the people of Japan, an insular island country endowed with a strong cultural and ethnic unity, it was not easy to comprehend how India despite its vast land, and an exemplary civilization could succumb to outside invaders. Investigating into the causes of India’s fall into the hands of foreign barbarians, the knowledgeable Japanese merchants soon found out how India’s abundant wealth and resources had tempted the British traders to exploit the situation and extract commercial privileges. Nishikawa Joken (1648-1724), a textile merchant from Nagasaki, gives an account of the bustling commercial activities in several ports all along India’s coastal region, such as Goa, Chaul (Bombay), Cochin, Pondicherry, Nagapatnam, St. Thome (Madras), and Machhalipatnam, which had been opened to the Europeans for trade. What Nishikawa found surprising was that the Mughals had not only permitted the Europeans to trade but also provided them space to build their bases. This was in stark contrast with Japan where the foreign merchants, namely Dutch and the Chinese were denied entry beyond the port of Nagasaki. The Indian disasters prompted many Japanese to study India and investigate the rise of British East India Company. The sinister designs and clever moves of European traders became a subject of debate and consternation among Japanese strategists. By mid-nineteenth century, India had become a full-fledged colony of Great Britain and China too had become a semi-colony of the European powers.

The presence of European vessels in East Asian waters and the vulnerability of Japanese Islands to Western intrusion generated a fear psychosis among the Japanese who thought of taking stringent steps to keep the foreigners at bay. But before anything could be done, Japan too was forcibly opened by the United States of America in 1853. An educator-reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) urged his countrymen to take lessons from India and China’s disasters and resolved not to repeat those experiences in Japan. Since most of Japan’s current problems stemmed from the West, Fukuzawa argued for the need to modernize and adopt Western civilization as a means to preserve Japan’s independence. This line of thought subsumed under the rubric of ‘Leave Asia, enter Europe’ took Japan to move away from Asian values and emulate the West. Though the official stand also favoured aligning with the West, there were some Asian-minded Japanese, like Arao Sei (1858-1896) and Sugita Teiichi (1851-1928), who argued that even though Japan had modernized on the model of the West, it should remain an Asian power, as Asia was where Japan lay geographically and historically. They were working for the ‘revival of Asia’ and even envisaged a federation of Asian countries that were in the throes of Western imperialism.

Indian national consciousness: An inspiring theme for Japanese writers

The news about Indian people forming a national association in 1885 (Indian National Congress) invigorated the activities of the Asian-minded people in Japan. A political novelist Tokai Sanshi (1852-1922) was deeply impressed by the anti-imperialist movements gaining momentum in colonized countries including India. Through his serialized novels he sought to convey a message to the oppressed countries to form a union against the imperialist powers. One of the episodes is centered on the theme of Indian people’s patriotic upsurge which he traces to the Revolt of 1857. Glorifying Indian people’s daring effort, Tokai was confident that despite brutal suppression of the Mutiny, the Indian people’s patriotic fervour was growing stronger and the day was not far when the British would have to quit India and the Indians would be able to form their own independent government.

Indian people’s movement also found coverage in a magazine Nihonjin started in 1888 by Miyake Setsurei (1860-1945) and Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927). The patriotic upsurge of the Indian people swelled Miyake’s Asian pride. He extolled their daring move and visualized India as ‘a new big independent country of Asia.’ Thereafter, he became extremely critical of his country’s pro-West stance. The Japanese, Miyake stated, must promote the study of Asia, as it would greatly benefit Japan. To wean the Japanese from their preference for Western over Asian values, Miyake vehemently argued that the Japanese must preserve their distinct aesthetic values, which he defined as ‘truth, goodness, and beauty’ (satyam, shivam, sundaram) - the three universal virtues.

The interest in India led to the commencement of courses in Indian studies at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1885. Though these courses were Buddhism-oriented, started by two Buddhist scholars, Nanjo Bunyu (1849-1927) and Takakusu Junjiro (1886-1945), who had studied under F. Max Muller at the University of Oxford, it was the first formal step taken by the Japanese government to promote Indological studies. Initially, the focus was directed to the study of ancient India. But Japan’s acquisition of Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1910) created the need for information regarding governance of indigenous people, specially the administrative and judicial systems set up by the British in India. Subsequently, new courses dealing with comparative religions and foreign languages including some Asian languages like Malay, Mongolian, Urdu, and Tamil were set up. These came to be taught at Tokyo School of Foreign Languages in 1911 and in Osaka School of Foreign Languages in 1921. However, in the absence of any academic centres and research facilities in British India, the Japanese had not only to rely on Western scholarship, but also study in European academic centres.

The earliest known work on contemporary India is Kitamura Saburo’s Indoshi [History of India, 1889], which gives an outline of the Indian history up to the formation of Indian National Congress. The most comprehensive and analytical study of India’s national movement was by Okawa Shumei (1886-1957), a graduate from the University of Tokyo. Okawa was fascinated by the rich Indian cultural heritage, but his image of India shattered after reading Henry J. Cotton’s New India (London: Kegan Paul and Trench, 1886). The book asserted that it was the ‘white man’s burden’ to ameliorate the people of India. Okawa became so concerned about India’s socio-political reality that he switched to the study of India and wrote about a dozen works on Indian history and freedom struggle. Through his works, he apprised the Japanese about the politics and current affairs of India. He also talked about Mahatma Gandhi’s life in South Africa, his philosophy of ‘satyagraha’, ‘ahimsa,’ and non-cooperation, and the novel methods of attaining independence. He called Gandhi ‘India’s Tolstoy’ who made the Indian national movement ‘truly Indian.’ In his opinion, Gandhi’s emergence was the catalyst which had induced India’s political awakening within its own cultural and spiritual tradition. But he saw Gandhi more as a political leader than a spiritual leader because of his methods of mass mobilization and his unmatched ability to influence the Indian public opinion. The emergence of Gandhi, according to Okawa, was the beginning of a new era and the final stage of the Indian national movement. Okawa also helped the Indian revolutionaries in Japan. It was indeed a pity that during Tokyo trials in 1946-48, his name was listed under “Class A” war criminals but was released for insanity.

Modernized Japan: Inspiration for Indian nationalists

Japan’s ability to safeguard its independence, at a time when most of Asia had come under the yoke of Western imperialism, exerted a great impact on the minds of literate Indians, some of whom were fortunate enough to visit Japan. One of the early visitors was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who made a brief stop over in Japan in 1893 on way to the Chicago Congress of World Religions. He was profoundly impressed by Japanese people’s nationalistic zeal, their industrious nature, the sense of dignity and honour, cleanliness, etiquettes and manners. A man filled with dynamic energy and a fiery passion to push India forward, Vivekananda urged the Indian youth to look to Japan for India’s development and progress. In a letter to one of his disciples written in 1901, Vivekanada expressed the hope that someday it would be possible to establish a ‘connection between India and Japan.’

It was not late when Vivekananda’s dream of establishing connection between India and Japan was realized. A person who voyaged along with Vivekananda to Japan was J. N. Tata (1839-1904), the head of the Tata business group. Tata was on his way to meet Shibusawa Eiichi (1848-1931), a shipping magnate of Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), to explore the feasibility of starting a joint India-Japan shipping venture to enable the native businessmen to transport their goods at lower freight rate. India’s burgeoning textile and spinning industries had generated a lot of interest among the Japanese businessmen. At that time, about 50 percent of raw cotton used by the Japanese mills came from India but for transportation they had to depend on European vessels. Despite tough competition from European firms, Tata and Shibusawa were able to start their own shipping services to transport goods. The other commodities besides cotton were: pig iron, teak, jute, gunny bags, fertilizers etc. from India to Japan; glassware, matches, umbrella sticks and handles etc. from Japan to India. The base cargo carried from Bombay was raw cotton, and that from Calcutta was pig iron. Hence these routes were known for many years as the “cotton route” and the “iron route.” The commencement of direct shipping facilities not only stimulated bilateral trade, it also led to the establishment of Japanese Consulate in Bombay in 1894 and in Calcutta in 1907. Besides raw cotton, the other merchandise was the tea from Darjeeling. A tea planter Tada Motokichi was so fascinated by its aroma and taste of India’s black tea that he learnt the various levels of oxidation process that went into the making of tea and also took the tea plant for propagation in Shizuoka. India’s black tea, though popular in the West and Arab countries, however failed to catch the market in Japan where the people consumed mostly the green teas.

These early trading links not only facilitated interaction with the Japanese entrepreneurs, they also gave Indians an opportunity to know the country’s developmental process. Social reforms, mass-based education, and promotion of industries were some of the areas in Japan’s modernization that exerted maximum appeal on Indian minds. An engineer-statesman M. Visvesvaraya (1861-1962) visited Japan in 1898. What impressed him was the Japanese people’s receptivity to new ideas and the zeal for self-improvement. Japan had made progress not only in industrial advancement but also in compulsory and girl’s education. Visvesvaraya was struck by the emphasis on vocational education that geared to the practical needs of the people at all levels. He contrasted Japan’s case with India where the educational facilities were restricted only to a small section of population. The purpose of the British was primarily to produce loyal servants and not to educate the masses. Visvesvaraya discovered in Japan a working model for India and was convinced that with education and planned economic development, India too could rise to Japan’s level. A country’s industries should grow; only then the country can prosper. A country may have minerals; she may have forests and harbors; there may be rivers so that electricity can be produced. But man has to use his intelligence and work hard; he has to develop the industries. After returning to India, he wrote his observations in Reconstructing India (1920), and the thrust was: “Industries and trade do not grow of themselves, but have to be planned and systematically developed.”

The Indian people’s interest in Japan enkindled further after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The event had an electrifying impact on the Indians and other Asians, for it showed that any country, even outside the West, could rise to a higher position only if it did what had to be done. Inspired by Japan’s daring feat, the Indian leaders intensified the demand for ‘Swaraj’ and as the struggle entered the ‘Swadeshi’ phase, attempts were made to displace British goods by augmenting indigenous production. The Indian manufacturers saw Japan as a source from where the new equipment and machines could be obtained to increase the supply of home-made goods. Funds were raised to send students to Japan to learn industrial arts and vocational skill so that they could contribute to the production of simple goods like pencils, glass, watches, cardboard, cane-boxes, and textiles. The popular mood was one of hope that Indian nationalism might eventually prevail over British imperialism if India were to follow the Japanese example and become self-reliant.

In 1922, the Nizam’s State of Hyderabad sent a mission under Syed Ross Masood to study Japan’s educational system. Masood reported that Japan’s educational system was geared not only to promote national progress and unity, but also as a strategy to reduce social inequalities and poverty. However, the enthusiasm to know more about Japan did not lead to a deeper understanding of the country, because, as a British colony, India was not free to adopt the Japanese model. Politically as well as economically, the Japanese model threatened the British interests in India. The princely States, which constituted two-fifths of India, were relatively in a better position though even their policies were subject to British approval. It was only in the princely State of Mysore in South India, which was not a British territory, that some steps were undertaken towards industrialization and introduction of modern education system on a free and compulsory basis. This too was made possible mainly through the efforts of Visvesvaraya, who as the Diwan of Mysore State could use his position to implement some of the ideas that had attracted him during his trips to Japan in 1898 and 1919. To provide professional and technical training to the skilled workers, Visvesvaraya also started vocational school, agricultural schools and engineering colleges. When he became the Dewan in 1912 there were about 4,500 schools and 1,40,000 boys and girls in Mysore State; within six years about 6,500 new schools were opened and the number of students had increased to 3,66,000; a girls’ college with hostel facilities was also opened.

Japan’s educational system continued to be a subject of study and inspiration as late as 1930’s when an industrialist-statesman Lalubhai Samaldas visited Japan and wrote his observations in the form of a book My Impressions of Japan (1933). Samaldas felt pleased to note that the Japanese schools provided six years’ compulsory education, whereas in India, there existed none. The British provided compulsory education in their own country, but they denied the same to their colonial subjects. He recalled the year 1911, when in his fellow Indian Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) had moved the Compulsory Primary Education Bill in the Legislative Assembly. But the British opposed it tooth and nail because they feared that by educating the Indian masses, their actions would come under scrutiny and their authority to rule the country would be questioned and challenged. The illiteracy rate in British provinces was in fact higher than the princely States in India like Cochin, Travancore, Mysore, and Baroda. Japan had progressed not only because of the mass-based educational system but also because of the vocational schools, which besides grooming the youth in various skills had made them into self-reliant and hard-working citizens. Samaldas however felt disappointed to note that though Japan had modernized along Western lines and the men-folk had progressed intellectually and industrially, the women had very limited access to advanced education. Girls’ education in Japan was still geared to producing “good wives and wise mother.” There was nothing like purdah, and yet, Samaldas found a purdah-like situation because the Japanese women were rarely seen in social gatherings. A believer in the equality of sexes, Samaldas hoped that both the State and the public would open avenues for girls’ higher education. Higher education would give social freedom to women and encourage them to come out of their houses. Their presence would not only “make the men folk better social beings” but also “mellow the ultra-nationalism,” which was pervading the Japanese society.

While the businessmen and officials were looking at the practical aspects of Japan, Vivekanada sought to link the force of Japanese nationalism with Indian nationalism through a common spiritual bond – a search that was continued by Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), after Vivekananda’s untimely death in 1902. An art historian and an advocate of Asian unity, Okakura had come to India at the invitation of Vivekanada. A believer in the superiority of Asian culture, Okakura’s mission was to create an awareness of Asian unity. The crowning phrase “Asia is one” of his book, Ideals of the East (1903), speaks for his deep regard for Asia. The book was written in English with the specific object of enlightening the British intellectuals about Asia’s rich cultural heritage. In another work, The Awakening of Japan (1904), Okakura expressed his solidarity with the Indian cause and made a fervent appeal to the Indian youth to unite and work in cooperation with fellow Asians for the regeneration of Asia. During his year-long stay (November 1901-October 1902), Okakura formed a close association with Vivekananda and Tagore, and the three of them used to contemplate the future of the Asian people. Although Asia was nothing more than a geographical description, they made conscious efforts to search for an Asian identity. Tagore felt greatly indebted to Okakura in formulating the Asian concept. Tagore said that “it was from Okakura that we first came to know there was such a thing as an Asiatic mind.” To realize Okakura Tenshin’s dream of Asian unity, Rabindranath Tagore visited Japan many a times between 1916 and 1929. Tagore’s Visvabharati University at Shantiniketan founded in 1901 was a popular destination for the Japanese intellectuals, poets, artists, and monks visiting India. In 1913, Tagore had become the first Asian to win Nobel Prize thus contributing to India’s international reputation in the world of literature. Hence, Tagore’s visit aroused euphoria among the Japanese. It led to a ‘Tagore boom’ when some England-based Japanese specialists of English literature undertook the translation of Tagore’s poems from English into Japanese and serialized them in leading magazines in Japan. Translation from Tagore’s original Bengali had to wait until 1924 when Sano Jinnosuke translated Gora, Tagore’s longest novel. 

Indian political activists in Japan

Modernized Japan also served as a haven for the ambitious Indian students and political activists. Japan at that time was bound to Great Britain with an alliance signed in 1902. Despite constraints of Anglo-Japanese alliance, the Indians found Japan a relatively safe place for their anti-British propaganda. Many of the young Indians utilized the opportunity of promoting the cause of India’s freedom by attracting support from the prominent Japanese political and social leaders. In 1900, they formed the Oriental Youngmen’s Association with the aim of facilitating interaction with the Japanese and other Asian students studying in Japan. In 1903, a prominent Japanese statesman Okuma Shigenobu (1838-1922) took the initiative of setting up a Japan-India Association in Tokyo to promote Japan-India cultural and economic ties and better understanding between the people of the two countries. In 1906 Okuma became its President and served the association until his death in 1922. In 1895, Japan had acquired its first colony Taiwan. Hence, there was lot of interest among Japanese officials and scholars to know how the British were governing India. Okuma also set up a ‘Society for Indian Studies’ on the campus of Waseda University to promote Indian studies and stimulate interest in Indian affairs. While interacting with the Indian students and business community in Japan, Okuma expressed solidarity with the Indian cause and, in several speeches he urged the British to grant self-government to India. But being a shrewd politician, he also exhorted the Indians that if they wanted self-government, they must learn lessons from Japan and “strive and improve themselves.” If the Indians reform themselves, Great Britain would surely see the fact and grant self-government to the Indians, like Canada, Australia, and other nations.

The second decade of twentieth century saw the arrival of a large number of Indian ultranationalists in Japan. In June 1913, the overseas Indians had formed the Ghadar Party with bases in San Francisco, Berlin, London, Paris, Vancouver, and Tokyo. One of the earliest activists was Maulavi A.H. Barkatullah (1870-1927), who got an assignment to teach Urdu in Tokyo School of Foreign Languages. Apart from teaching, he also carried political activities including the publication of a monthly Islamic Fraternity. When the British came to know of it, they issued orders for his dismissal. Another prominent Indian to come to Japan was Lala Lajpt Rai (1865-1928), the ‘Lion of Punjab.’ Probably, the most popular Indian was Rash Behari Bose (1886-1945), who combined political activities with culinary skills. He introduced an authentic Indian cuisine ‘curry rice’ - rice served with a gravy-based dish prepared with Indian spices and it became an instant hit among food lovers in Japan. Rash Behari’s restaurant called ‘Nakamuraya’ still exists in (Shinjuku) in Tokyo.

Another Indian leader who won the hearts of the Japanese people was Subhas Chandra Bose who formed the Indian National Army and sought Japanese assistance to fight Great Britain and liberate India. The Imphal campaign (1944) carried out with Japanese support was aimed at strengthening the defence line in Burma and not to capture India. However, the World War II ended in a total disaster for Japan and also for those Indian patriots who were relying upon Japanese help. Japan’s defeat and the scars left by the atomic holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, first of its kind in human history, hastened the cause of India’s independence. Although the Indian nationalists’ collaboration with Japan ended in fiasco, their sacrifices did not go in vain. Rather, it left a very positive impact on the thinking of the British. The realization finally dawned upon the British that the tide of Indian nationalism could not be suppressed any longer, and wisely they decided to wind up their empire and transfer the power to the people whom they held under subjugation for so long. The first country to experience this peaceful transfer was India.

India – Japan relations since 1952

On 28th April 1952, India became the first country to sign a peace treaty with Japan and establish diplomatic relations with a war-ravaged Japan. Since India had not experienced any kind of aggression at the hands of the Japanese troops during the war, the Indian assessments were by and large free from bitterness towards Japan. Experiencing freedom from the bondage of British rule after six decades of patient and sustained struggle, the Indians viewed Japan’s situation with sympathy and open mind. The Indians felt a strong sense of kinship and expressed solidarity not only with Japan but all other Asian countries which were still languishing under colonial rule or devastated by the war. This became evident when a popular world leader Jawaharlal Nehru visited Japan in October 1957. Besides, boosting the morale of the Japanese people, the visit also facilitated Japan’s rehabilitation in the international community. The visit had enkindled profuse interest and admiration for India, which became evident by the publication of translation of Nehru’s highly acclaimed work Discovery of India in Japanese language. The gift of a baby elephant Indira to the children of Japan had stirred the Japanese because all their big animals at Tokyo’s Ueno zoo had either perished or killed during aerial bombings. Indira traveled all over Japan and was greeted with cheer wherever it went. All these gestures had a very positive influence in the shaping of the thinking of people in the two countries. An opinion poll, conducted in Japan in mid-1950s, showed India as the “most liked and respected country.”

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the two countries have enjoyed cordial relations based on trade and economic and technical cooperation. The cultural agreement between Japan and India was signed in 1957 and took effect the following year. In 1951, India established a scholarship system for overseas students. This system to this day provides an opportunity for young Japanese scholars who are today in the forefront of Indian studies to study in India. Following Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s visit to India in 1957, Japan started providing yen loans to India in 1958, as the first yen loan aid extended by Japanese government. Since 1986, Japan has become India’s largest aid donor and remains so.

India’s relations with Japan have been free of any kind of dispute - ideological, cultural or territorial. The two countries relationship is something unique and rests on a deep reservoir of goodwill. In the collective Indian perception, there has been a strong admiration for Japan’s post-war economic reconstruction and subsequent rapid growth. This was reaffirmed a generation later by the unique role of Maruti-Suzuki in revolutionizing industrial technology and management concepts in the pre-economic reform India. In commensurate with the bilateral economic relations, cultural exchanges have also picked up. The cultural exchange programmes which began in 1980’s with the holding of Japan Cultural Month in India in October-November 1987 and Festival of India in Japan in April 1988 have become a regular annul feature and are being organized on an elaborate scale in both the countries. On academic front, the Japanese studies of India and Indian studies of Japan are also making slow but steady progress despite several language handicaps. In addition, preservation and restoration of the Buddhist monuments, in-depth studies in India ancient religions have also evoked concern and interest among scholars. All this has been possible partly due to the efforts of the Japanese government, UNESCO/Japan Trust Fund for Preservation of the World Cultural Heritage, and some private Japanese organizations, like the Japan Foundation, and partly due to the sustained interest and efforts of the two countries’ researchers and intellectuals. The Japan Foundation engaged in extending financial grants to research institutes, universities, and cultural faculties since 1978, opened an office in New Delhi in January 1994 and a Cultural Centre in New Delhi in December 2006.

Today, India and Japan share a global vision of peace, shared democratic values, stability and shared prosperity, based on sustainable development. The global partnership between the two countries formed in 2001 reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic interests, aspirations, objectives and concerns. Japan and India view each other as partners that will jointly meet the global and regional challenges in keeping with their global partnership. With the commencement of ‘India-Japan Friendship Year’ the two governments have already set the ball rolling by initiating several steps to augment this friendship. Since language is a big handicap which comes in way of attaining mutual awareness and close understanding between the people of the two countries, the two governments are working together to promote Japanese language studies in India, with a target of 30,000 learners at different levels by the year 2010. Japanese language has already been introduced as an optional foreign language in the secondary school curriculum in India. Similarly, Japanese language teaching cells are being set up in various Technological Institutes and universities in India. The year 2007 has also been designated as the “India-Japan Tourism Exchange Year” to promote tourism exchanges. The increase in the civil aviation links between the two countries will prove to be a key element for fostering closer economic and people-to-people contacts. The Japanese government has agreed to provide assistance in development of tourism-related infrastructure, including the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit in India. The two sides are also exploring the possibility of restoring the lost glory of Nalanda and make it a major centre of learning with the establishment of an international university. Established in the 5th century BC, Nalanda had been a flourishing centre of learning until its destruction by the invader Bakhtiar Khilji in 12th century AD. Hiuen Tsang (603-664 AD) had also studied at Nalanda. But following the Muslim raids, Nalanda ceased to attract brilliant minds from all over the world.

Thus both India and Japan are trying to reach out to each other as they did never before. There is a push and pull from both sides. During his recent visit to Japan in December 2006, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accorded a rare honour of addressing the Japanese Parliament (Diet). The new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is believed to have a very soft corner for India. His book ‘Towards a Beautiful Nation’ released amidst his campaigns assumes significance because the book predicts that within the next decade Japan’s ties with India will become more important than ties with China or even the US. This prediction may appear a bit exaggerated, but it does suggest that Abe is one of those Japanese politicians who firmly believe in the potential of India and is keen to cement ties with a country that he sees as a key player in Asia, if not world.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

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