Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko with PM Manmohan Singh and his wife
Are our ties with Japan as robust and healthy as they should be? The visit of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko to India after a gap of 53 years (they last visited officially in 1960 when Akihito was crown prince) provides the perfect pause to reflect on how India’s relationship with Japan has evolved and assess the distance it still has to travel. The best person to pose this question will be to Sakutaro Tanino, the press secretary to the Emperor. He has a bird’s eye view of the play of the relations, not only between India and Japan but also of India and China and Japan and China. Tanino was Japan’s ambassador to India between 1995 and 1998. By April that year, he had been posted as Ambassador to China, and he was preparing for his posting to Beijing in a small hotel in Tokyo when he read in the papers that India had gone overtly nuclear. Given Japan’s sensitivity to nuclear weapons—they are the sole victims of an atom bomb attack—this was a big setback (it is another matter that Japan takes succour from the defence shield provided by the US). It looked as though Japan and India would drift apart. In the Cold War era, India was in the Soviet Camp while Japan was more closely identified with the US. As it happened, the empress, through her charity work, was scheduled to make a keynote speech in New Delhi; that took a hit as well, and, Tanino recalls, she ultimately made a video appearance. Now that royal couple were finally here, 10 years after an invitation had been extended, it added a final formality to the 60 years of diplomatic relations.
But the former ambassador, who is also active in the Japan-China Friendship centre, reels off some numbers that show the vast difference in the scale of ties between Japan and China on the one hand and India and Japan, on the other. Between India and Japan, there are only 26 flights a week, whereas between China and Japan there are 668 flights every week. There are only 541 Indian students studying in Japan as against 86,324 Chinese students; in India, according to 2009 figures, there were 18,000 Japanese language learners while the figures for China the same year is 827,000. The asymmetry couldn’t be starker.
Japan and China, to be sure, have a history of interlinkages which India and Japan don’t. Geographically, China is much closer to Japan. Language and distance are factors where India is concerned. Some have argued that this distance between New Delhi and Tokyo could be psychological, avers Tanino. But no longer, surely. As India and US have warmed up to each other, so have axiomatically, Japan and India. Yet, Japan’s engagement with China may have one lesson in store for India: our mandarins argue that if India keeps working on expanding economic ties with China, the political differences may not appear such a big deal once the economics of the engagement overwhelms everything else. It could be a chimera: look at the humungous size of the economic ties between Japan and China. Yet, has it managed to diminish the political differences between the two? The recent flap over the Senkaku Islands, a picnic compared to our border disputes with China, may be a clear pointer that our differences with China will not automatically fall away even if we focus on the economics.
(Sudarshan is most recently author of Adrift; emails to the author can be sent at firstname.lastname@example.org)