August 03, 2020
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The Cherry Is Abloom

As PMs Modi and Abe come close, India must be wary of the shadow that stalks Japan

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The Cherry Is Abloom
The Cherry Is Abloom

Closer Ties, Material Gains

  • Japan to invest on infrastructure of over $33 billion in next 5 years
  • India-Japan agreement on commercial contract for production of rare earths
  • Both sides to complete feasilibity study for Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed railway
  • Japanese investment in Northeastern states to develop transport infrastructure


No two backgrounds could be more different—Narendra Modi, with his humble, avowedly ‘chaiwallah’ origin and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, the grandson of an elite Japanese politician. Yet they seem to have much in common. Both are leaders of Asian democracies who today enjoy a comfortable majority in their respective parliaments and thus political stability—a rare feat in both India and Japan, with their series of coalition governments. In addition, both Modi and Abe are equally acknowledged to be business-friendly politicians who seem to have clear ideas on steps that need to be taken to revive their sagging economies. They also represent two countries in a geographical space dominated by an assertive China. Both have territorial disputes with the vast Asian power that not only happens to be their biggest neighbour but, paradoxically, their largest trading partner too.

Modi and Abe are also both right-wing politicians who play the nationalist card to consolidate, strengthen and expand their political clout and influence. The two leaders are sharers of something else—both refuse to take responsibility for actions, or inactions, in the past that have led to deaths of innocent people.

Modi and Abe are politicians who play the nationalist card to consolidate and strenghten their political influence.

Given their commonalities, the warm embrace Modi received from Abe on his arrival on August 30 at Kyoto, the ancient capital and site of Japan’s imperialist past, while cheered by supporters, also raised concern. The personal chemistry and bonding between the two leaders were evident from the start. The five-day visit was Modi’s first bilateral trip beyond the subcontinent; its significance was duly taken note of around the world.

“Modi had a tremendous visit and suc­ceeded in what he came to do—connect with the Japanese leadership and people,” says Hemant Krishan Singh, India’s former ambassador to Japan. “The Modi-Abe partnership is an unusual one. Though from diverse backgrounds, they share a view of not only how to deal with the world but also have a similar approach on national pride,” he adds.

The ‘diverse background’ refers to Modi’s birth in a mofussil. commoner family and the elite upbringing of Abe—the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who served in the war cabinet of Gen Tojo and later became a prime minister of Japan. But that didn’t prevent Abe from going out of his way to be in Kyoto to receive Modi on his arrival with uncharacteristic warmth—a rare gesture by any Japanese leader since they avoid not only physical contact but also emotions in public.

“Though from diverse backgrounds, Modi and Abe share a view of not only how to deal with the world, but also have a similar approach on national pride.”
Hemant Krishan Singh, Former Indian envoy to Japan

Former ambassador Singh, who had been part of four prime ministerial visits in the past, felt Modi’s engagement with the Japanese leadership had a very different tenor. “The Indian PM came and supported Japan at a time when they are being badgered by ‘negative-history obsession’ from not only China and South Korea but also from a large section of ‘left-liberals’ in the West,” says Singh.

The images that Japan naturally evokes in India and East Asia are a study in contrast—perceived as a benign nation by most Indians, it is remembered elsewhere with unabated bitterness and regarded as a threat for its militarist past. To most Indians, Japan is the tragic and solitary victim of a nuclear weapon. It is also associated with discipline, work ethics and hi-tech sophistication.

Modi’s Japan visit comes at a politically interesting time. While Tokyo regularly faces muscle-flexing by a swaggering China claiming exclusive rights to impo­rtant waterways and islands, many coun­tries in the region are equally worried about the rise of ‘nationalism’ in Japan under Shinzo Abe and his statement of intent on pursuing a more robust defence policy. In addition, the Japanese PM and his key cabinet colleagues and party leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead and where ashes of a number of Japanese wwii-era military leaders, later termed ‘war criminals’, are kept. The controversial visits have raised serious questions about the Abe leadership’s contrition about Japan’s militaristic past. Though these concerns are largely ignored by the Indian media, concerns about Abe’s ‘Japan is back’ policy emphasis has worried its neighbours in East and Southeast Asia—an area that is of growing economic and strategic importance to India.

“India will definitely have to look after its own interest in forging closer ties with Japan while balancing the sensitivities of other countries in East and Southeast Asia.”
Skand Tayal, Former Indian envoy to South Korea

Observers point out how the estimated 30 million Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Mal­ays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indo­n­esians and Burmese killed by occupying Japanese troops during wwii is still a raw memory in these countries. “Although a nation that has long espoused pacifism, any hint of nationalism has been condemned by formerly occupied countries in Asia,” says Dennis McCor­nac of Maryland’s Loyola University.

Former Indian envoy to South Korea, Skand Tayal, also argues on similar lines. “The Koreans in particular are unc­om­fortable about the rising militarism in Japan.” He cites the Germans, who for generations have exp­iated for the Third Reich. Ditto Japan, but the present leadership under Abe has shown a near-ind­ifference towards its militarist past and, on occasion, even celebrated it.

“Japan’s international muscle-flexing under PM Shinzo Abe may be even more significant,” says former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans in a critical article in Project Syndicate. “Unless it is carefully managed by all concerned, inc­l­uding the US and Japan’s Asia-Pacific allies, Abe’s makeover of Japanese foreign policy could undermine the fragile power balances that have kept the Sino-American rivalry in check,” he warns.

Some suggest caution so that while forging close ties with Japan, India doesn’t lose out on cooperation from others.

Others argue that the comparison with Japan’s military past and Abe’s attempt at fashioning an assertive Japan is a little over-stretched. “Japan today has strong and functioning institutions of democracy that clearly govern civil-military relations,” says Jeffrey Ordaniel of the School of Security and International Studies, Tokyo. “The two institutions of democracy in Japan, namely its legislature, the Diet, and its constitution, are strong enough to withstand any attempt by anyone to be ‘militarist’,” he says.

The jury on Abe and the changes that he proposes may still be out but what do close ties with Japan augur for India? Some point out to the possibility of India’s economic growth getting a fillip from strong ties with Japan, others suggest caution so that New Delhi does not lose out on cooperation from other nations in the bargain. “India will have to look after its own interest in forging ties Japan while balancing the sensitivities of other countries in the region,” says Tayal.

This would call for a lot of nimble-footed diplomacy. Will a desire to enter into a tight strategic embrace with Abe get the better of Modi’s sense to keep India’s options open? His remark about “18th century expansionism” didn’t go unnoticed anywhere, and elicited resp­on­ses marked by a barely concealed pet­ulance from Beijing. The next move in the game will be mulled over after Chinese president Xi Jin­ping visits New Delhi later in the month.

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