Saturday, November 30, 2013

Japan's Not-so-Royal Expectations

The Emperor & Empress of Japan are now on a visit to India after 53 years. Highlighting the significance of this visit, Sanjaya Baru, in his article, "Love from Tokyo" (IE, 21 Nov., 2013), describes how a seemingly Indian-looking sculpture behind a Tokyo hotel reminded him of the ‘firm foundations of an ancient civilizational link’ between the two countries.

Even a cursory look at the recorded history of the two countries will tell you that if at all there is a civilizational link' between India and Japan, it runs through China. The iconography that so impressed Baru does indeed come in many forms, and they all have Chinese names. The six-handed figure may have been that of "Kannon", the Goddess of Mercy. At the ancient shrines in Kyoto there are also numerous icons of "Binzuru", better known as the Buddhist monk, Pindola Bharadwaja.

Tenuous historical connections aside, as we prepare to welcome the royal couple it would be useful to remind urselves that Japan's monarchy, has only been a front for alternate power centers in Japan for nearly a thousand years. Ever since the military generals - the Shoguns - usurped political power after the Warring States Periods (Sengoku Jidai), the monarchs have mostly been playing a symbolic role scripted outside their palaces.

Symbols are of course powerful instruments in nation-building.

Japan's monarchy, as it exists today, is a carefully constructed artifact of the Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912). It was in this remarkable phase of Japan's history that reformers emerging from the Samurai elite displaced the Shogun and notionally restored power to the monarchy.

Behind the scenes, a band of young, bold reformers - most of them freshly minted from foreign universities - rammed through tough reforms that made Japan what it is today. Almost overnight, they abolished Samurai class titles and distinctions; imposed free, compulsory education and established an effective national healthcare system.

The reformers also decided to replace Buddhism, which had turned 'decadent, meek and submissive', with a state-sponsored version of Shintoism, headed by the monarch himself. Thus an emperor, who could go shopping in Tokyo without being recognized by the public, was re-launched by the Meiji nationalists to play the role of a 'Living God' and foisted as the 'Symbol of Japan'.

The strategy was a runaway success. A deeply feudal, agrarian society transformed itself within just a few decades into a modern industrial powerhouse, and a shining example to the rest of the under-developed world.

It is an enduring Asian tragedy that Japan's emergence as a westernized, industrial state also turned it into yet another, relentless, exploitative colonial power. As Imperial Japan marched from one conquest to another; starting with Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea, to almost the whole of East Asia, it left in its wake, a legacy that rankles even today: Unit 731, Nanjing, Comfort Women, and a string of disputed islands.

The Japan that re-emerged from the war, and American occupation, was a very different country. Article 9 of its Constitution “renounced war forever”. Under Prime Minister Yoshida’s doctrine, it outsourced national defense to USA, and diverted all its resources towards building a strong export-oriented economy.

In many ways, the post-war economic boom also turned it into a timid, insular society which, like a rich moneylender imagines that throwing money around can solve the problems of the world. Today it is a country where the old outnumber the young, and its university graduates increasingly prefer to stay at home, in cities, rather than venture into the outside world. Japan’s lifeline of export-oriented industries is steadily losing out to other Asian economies - especially South Korea, Taiwan and China.

And yet, as we have seen in the aftermath of the 2011 'Triple Disaster', few people in the world have the disciple, stoicism and pragmatism to bounce-back, and to thrive against all odds.

In this context, as the Japan reaches out to strengthen its linkages with India, let us let us clearly recognize our own perceived weaknesses. First of all, we talk too much. The O-shaberi Indo-jin (glib-talking Indian) is a title we could do without. We prefer to indulge in sentimental tosh instead of acting on practical decisions. We tend to sacrifice long-term relationships for short-term gains.

The Japanese need a stable, predictable destination to park their investments. They need a steady source for rare earths, iron ore and other raw materials. They need greater access to our markets and human resources. Instead of swiftly bridging these demand-supply gaps, we flip-flop over many things such as the dedicated freight corridor project. After years of negotiations our finance ministry now reported to be having 'second thoughts' about accepting a US$ 4.5 billion loan for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project.

All said and done, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are being sent here on a business trip, let us not bore them with fairy tales about civilizational linkages. It is pragmatism that brings the Japanese to India. Lets us not disappoint them with our version of business-as-usual.


* Chellany, Brahma --

- In the financial year 2011-12, India-Japan bilateral trade reached USD 18.43 billion.
- 2012 marked the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Japan

* Dikshit, Sandeep (10Jul13) -


- MP - Taro Yamamoto - letter to HH

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