The star attraction in the Indian pavilion at the Osaka World Expo 1970 was a white tiger. There were, of course, handicrafts and Darjeeling tea. The Japanese politely praised the wonders of India, recalled Buddhist bonds, reminisced over Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Judge Radha Binod Pal, who defended the Japanese after the war and earned a monument for himself in the Yasukuni shrine, talked of Asian solidarity and moved on.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had just visited Japan a few months earlier and relations appeared cordial. Agreements to continue the modest yen credit for projects were signed. Some Japanese wanted the ashes kept at the Rinkoji temple, believed to be of Bose, to be returned to India. Indira Gandhi promised to look into it, knowing well the reaction among people in West Bengal if the ashes of a man they still believed alive were to be brought there.
India and Japan were never indifferent to each other. But both had had different preoccupations. In the 1970s, even while Japan was basking in its fame as the master manufacturer of the world, it was embarrassed by the ceremonial suicide of its young poet, Yukio Mishima, exhorting Japan to resume a militaristic posture. Ichiro Kawasaki, a diplomat, unmasked Japanese weaknesses and asserted that without a huge land mass, sizeable population and abundant resources, Japan would never be a significant world power. Japan had outsourced its foreign policy to the US. India, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, was a nuisance to US cold warriors, who wanted to contain the Soviet menace. Japan shared that sentiment.
Moreover, India’s defiance of the NPT was unfolding and Japan, sitting in the shade of an American nuclear umbrella, looked askance at Indian nuclear policy. The closed Indian economy had no great attraction for the export-hungry Japanese. The period of benign neglect stretched on for years.
Now that the rain has started, it is pouring. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a successful visit to Tokyo in 2013, with expectations of an early agreement on nuclear cooperation. Though the agreement was not signed, the machinery for strategic cooperation was put in place. A rare visit by the emperor and empress of Japan followed and the Japanese prime minister squeezed in a visit to India to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. The comfort level in relations has reached such proportions that Japan is prepared to begin negotiations for the sale of sea planes, which it has never sold.
China is the unwitting cupid that has brought about the India-Japan honeymoon. Japan is open about its strategy of befriending India with an eye on China, while India remains the bashful bride. Prime Minister Abe wrote in his book, Towards a Beautiful Country (2007), continued…