Friday, November 06, 2015

The Japan - South Korea Rivalry in India

It is interesting to see the various ways in which the Japan-Korea rivalry is being played out in India.

Prior to 2009, Japan used to have a strong presence across the country, both in terms of trace & commerce, as well as 'soft-power' projections.  This was quite apparant in the number of public hoardings advertising products from Suzuki, Sony and Toshiba, it was evident from the number of people who thronged to Siri Fort to see Japanese films and in results of market surveys which claimed that in the Indian market, Japan topped amongst all foreign investors in India.

Cut to 2015 and it seems quite clear that whatever the Japanese can do, the Koreans can do it better. The mobile phone market has exploded and it is now dominated by Samsung, the number of non-Japanese cars on Indian roads has risen sharply and in any mall, the number manufactured household goods -- refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, laptops, etc., -- from Samsung and LG far outnumber those from Hitachi, Sony or Toshiba, by a wide margin. Now the Koreans seem to have stolen the Japanese thunder for quality and reliability.

On the PR front, Japan seems out of touch with the times. If proof were needed, all you had to do is to walk down from the Moolchand Metro Station to the national cultural centres run by both the countries.

Long before the Koreans got into the game, in 2006, the Japanese had got themselves a buuilding in pole position for the Japan Foundation, right next to the metro line (also funded by Japan). By the time the line became operational, the Koreans created a much more impressive centre, less than 300m from  Japan Foundation.

The Korean Centre is located in a beautiful, spacious building on the Ring Road. Careful thought has gone into its design and layout which includes a big reception area (with a grumpy receptionist, unfortunately); it has dedicated floors for Taekwondo training, exhibitions, a lovely library, office spaces and a 'secret garden' for friends who want to have chat on the terrace, under the a Silk Cotton tree. The building has plenty of natural lighting and lots of artwork on the walls, including a huge technicolor panel commemorating K-pop.

In sharp contrast, Japan Foundation look cramped, colorless and drab. A building specially designed to turn off visitors. Its tiny, unfriendly spaces it seems to attract only a small cross-section of language students cramming for their exams. While the Korean Centre library has the most essential thing in a library - silence - at  Japan Foundation, you are constantly disturbed by the desk-staff chatting amongst themselves. Where  Japan Foundation directs visitors to other venues for its cultural outreach (book releases at Oxford, CP, films somewhere else), the K-centre draws in visitors with a wider range of interests. The only thing  Japan Foundation has in common with the Korean Centre is the grumpy receptionist. Maybe they are all hired from the same place...

Another proof of the sharp contrast between Japan and South Korea is evident in their approach to the digital media. In an era of smart-phones and slick websites, the Korean KCCI website wins hands down over the created by Japan Foundation, New Delhi.

My Japanese friends often complain about Koreans being mere copycats. "Why can't they do something original?", they ask, "We started an industrial township at Neemrana, and they too started one right next to it...We started a cultural centre in South Delhi, and they build theirs in the same neighborhood..".

For those who have seen both sides of the story, it seems clear that while the Japanese start early, think carefully, they end up doing things in a stingy, half-hearted way. The Koreans merely outdo them by implementing things on a scale, style and self-confidence level that eludes the Japanese in India.



* Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi --
* Japan Foundation -

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