Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Tuesday, January 9, 2003

Get noticed by Tokyo

by Ashok Ashta

This week, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawagachi is visiting India. The year 2002 marked the 50th anniversary of Indo-Japanese diplomatic relations.

To commemorate this landmark, the embassy of Japan and The Japan Foundation organised a memorable Japan Week in Delhi in late October. Apart from a Japanese Film Festival, approximately 15 cultural events were sponsored and supported during this period.

As Japanese Ambassador Hirabayashi left for France to be replaced by Ambassador Hayashi from Italy, the Japan Week was looked upon with expectation to mark the point for rapid acceleration in enhancement of Indo-Japanese relations after the laying of a firm foundation.

The Hirabayashi era had witnessed the beginning of strong foundations as evidenced in the intense efforts on both sides. In August 2000, the then Japanese Prime Minister, Mori, visited India followed by a quick return visit by Prime Minister Vajpayee to Japan in December 2001.

These efforts are certainly noticed by Japan-watchers in India and by India-watchers in Japan. However, some questions immediately follow. How relevant have these efforts been to the common citizen and businessman of either country? How do common Japanese citizens and businessmen perceive India? What are some key factors for greater cultural and business interaction?

One of the first things that immediately hit me during my trip to Japan in November was that for people who worked and studied outside any kind of Indo-Japan framework, India was not even on their radar.

The CEO of a major company explained that the Japanese recognised three things about India: one, that the people are intelligent, two, the women are beautiful, and three, the curry tastes great.

It is China which looms in the mind of the Japanese. A study of Japanese organisations shows that in most cases Asia refers to the eastern part of the continent up to Myanmar. India is traditionally and formally referred to as being in South West Asia.

So, the association of India with what the Japanese consider proper Asia does not come naturally to them. This is also reflected in the package tour brochures and ads of Japanese travel agents. Those who have shown interest in Asia in the past get bombarded with direct mail about packages to Asia, often without any mention of India.

While tourism is taken lightly in our country, it is important to recall that one of the points brought up as a key issue by the Japanese during Vajpayees visit in 2001 was the paucity of Japanese tourists to India.

The importance of being Asian is a fundamental issue and those who tend to look westwards should not be blind to this fact. Japan continues to maintain a strong clout in international politics and some scholars argue that it wilfully excluded India from bodies like APEC in the past on grounds that India was not on the Pacific.

Hence, whether for economic reasons or developing cultural ties, a core task for fostering stronger Indo-Japanese relations will be to get India on the map of Asia for the Japanese. In other words, get noticed in Tokyo.

Ashok Ashta is President of BUSINESS-INDIA/JAPAN, a private enterprise promoting Indo-Japanese Cultural and Business relations.

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