India-Japan ties rest on long history of contacts and cultural exchange

India-Japan ties rest on long history of contacts and cultural exchange
A Japanese flag flutters atop the Bank of Japan building in Tokyo, Japan | Photo: REUTERS

A rare Festival of Japan including an exhibition featuring Japanese art and culture was staged in Thiruvananthapuram by the Alumni Society of Japanese technical training programmes. I was asked to speak at the inaugural function. Having learnt the Japanese language up to interpreters’ level 40 years ago, I wanted to speak in Japanese, but I could manage to say only that “my Japanese has got rusted like an unused kitchen knife,” quoting from my text book. I recalled how I could interpret not only for my Ambassador, but also for the Indian Davis Cup team consisting of Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaydeep Mukherjee in 1970.

Tokyo was my first posting abroad in 1969 at a time the song, “Sayonara” was on everybody’s lips because of the popular movie, ‘Love in Tokyo’. Japan was at the height of popularity, preparing for the Expo 70 at Osaka. My wife and I were very excited to go to Japan at that time and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. Our first son was born in a Tokyo hospital though we had to struggle with a different system and culture.

Japan is a friendly country and the Japanese people go out of their way to be nice and kind to foreigners. But the culture shock was as intense at that time as it is today for first-time visitors. I listed the discoveries we made in the first few days. We realised that we cannot expect black tea with milk and sugar at the famous tea ceremony to which we are invited on arrival, that wasabi paste is not mild like “podina” chutney, but explosively hot, that raw fish they eat is not live fish, but cut and treated with condiments, that geishas are not women of ill repute, that men and women use different words for the same thoughts and things and so on. The most priced fish in Japan is “Fugu”, whose attraction is that unless it is properly cut by professionals, instant death is certain and the feeling of survival is ecstatic. In Kerala, if you ask someone for directions, we will be told casually to go straight, but in Japan, that person will assemble a crowd to consult and one of them will even accompany you to your destination. Husbands are privileged beings, who are not expected to come straight home from office, but after going to bars and moreover, they simply sit and watch television at home while the wives work hard. Japan never ceased to surprise me.

To guide us through the maze of Japanese culture, customs and manners, we luckily had two young engineers from Thiruvananthapuram, who were doing some technical training in Japan. Sasi and Babu came to the airport to receive us one midnight when we arrived. We offered to give them a lift back in the Embassy car, but the Japanese driver said that the car had to pick up the diplomatic bags also and there would be no space. Our friends had to spend the night at the airport till the public transport system opened in the morning. They became our constant companions and guides till we ourselves found our way around Japan.

Another guide we had was our neighbour Mr. A.M Nair, also known as “Nairsan”. He went to Tokyo as a medical student, but was mesmerised by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and joined him as his valet and interpreter till Netaji passed away. He then settled down in Japan with his Japanese wife, whom he called Janaki Amma, and launched the popular Indira Curry Powder and the Nairsan Restaurant in the upmarket Tokyo locality Ginza bang opposite the world-famous Kabuki theatre. He took us under his wings and made us feel at home in Japan. He kept away from the Indian Embassy because he felt that he was not recognised by Pandit Nehru after Netaji’s death. But he went to the Embassy to salute the flag on the Independence and Republic days. But he and his family came to our home often. He wanted his two sons, Vasudevan and Gopalan to marry girls from Kerala and he threatened them of disinheritance if they did not. He sought my mother-in-law’s help to find two girls for them from Kerala, but they chose their Japanese brides themselves. Nairsan is part of the Netaji folklore in Japan and the Indira Curry Powder, a mix of Indian and Japanese condiments that suit Japanese palates better. I believe Japanese tourists look for Indira Curry Powder in India and are disappointed that it is not available! 

Netaji was one of the most famous Indians in Japan at that time after the Buddha and Gandhiji, together with Justice Radha Binod Pal, famed for the Tokyo Trials, and Rash Behari Bose, a revolutionary leader. One political issue that we have with Japan even today is that the ashes of Netaji is still in the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo as many people in India still believe that Netaji did not die in an air crash. Many judicial commissions were appointed to find the truth and it was found several times that Netaji indeed died in an air crash and his body was brought to Japan and cremated. The Justice Khosla Commission came when we were still in Tokyo and I travelled with him to many cities where Netaji’s surviving friends had lived at that time. All of them swore to God they had seen and even carried his body to the funeral. Khosla Commission strongly urged the Government of India to bring back the ashes with honour, but it was not acceptable to public opinion in West Bengal.

As for bilateral relations, they were friendly and diplomatic, but there was no substance in them because Japan had no independent foreign policy of its own then as it followed US policies world-wide. Moreover, India’s nuclear policy was anathema to Japan since India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The relations became even worse after our two nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, but things improved after the India-US nuclear deal, which gave India a special status. After Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister of Japan, the relations became stronger than ever before. Japan supplied military equipment to India and even signed a nuclear cooperation agreement. Together with the US, Japan and Australia, India is part of the “Quad”, a kind of partnership against China.

India and Japan are culturally different, but our common anxiety about China, our common aspiration for permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the link of Buddhism have made us closer than what we were during my time in Japan. But even in those days, there was respect for each other and cordiality as I witnessed at the time of the visits of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The present close political relations have a long history of contacts and cultural interaction.