Bordered by the waters of the Hooghly and lying right next to the first dockyards of Bengal is a narrow, nondescript neighbourhood called Watgunj. Its chaotic lanes, crumbling grey houses and the hanging whiff of Biryani in the air conceal a much livelier colonial past when seafarers docking in the city frequented this area in search of fun thanks to its brothels.
Locals have faint memories of one decaying three-storeyed building with wooden louvred windows, typical of old Calcutta houses. They call it the ‘Japani kutir’. “We had heard that Japanese people would live in this building here. They perhaps worked in factories nearby,” says 60-year-old Deepak Lal Saha whose family has been living in Watgunj for generations.
A young man selling Gutka nearby chips in, “Since this area is near the docks, a lot of foreigners would come here back in the day. Watgunj was primarily a red light district then, with most of these old houses serving as brothels.”
The cosmopolitan colonial Calcutta of the 1900s had a sizeable Japanese population. Scholars suggest that before the Second World War as many as 10,000 Japanese people were living in the city, most settled around Kidderpore dock area and south of Park Street. In the years following Japan’s air raids on Calcutta during the war, most of these people were deported and the community largely disappeared. What remains are buildings and places inhabited by them, carrying memories of a time when the city was of special interest to this Asian community.
Although a majority of the Japanese residing in Calcutta during the pre-world war period were traders, sailors and labourers, there was also a strong intellectual interest in the city. Japanese intellectual interest in India stemmed from multiple aspects.
“First there was the Buddhist admiration for India as the birthplace of the Buddha, then there was scholarly attention being paid to philosophy and literature emerging from India. There was also sympathy for colonised people under the British Raj and sometimes there was contempt for a “ruined” civilisation, and support for anti-British activities (such as that of Subhas Chandra Bose) accompanied by Japan’s hidden aim to hold a leading position in Asia during the wartime,” explains Dr Okamoto Yoshiko, research fellow in Asian Cultural Studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo. Consequently before and during the Second World War, several books and articles on Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian Independence movement and also Rabindranath Tagore were written and published in Japan.
Being the hub of British India, Calcutta was a gateway for Japanese Buddhists, artists and intellectuals who wanted to go to religious sites in India such as Bodhgaya, Sarnath, or even Tibet. “There were also scholars who went to India for archaeological excavations of Buddhist heritage sites, and Calcutta offered a base to all of them,” says Yoshiko.
The city of Calcutta in itself and its syncretism of Western and Indian thought was also attractive to the Japanese visitors. “From the late 19th century and early 20th century, some Japanese scholars went to the colleges in Calcutta to study Indian languages such as Sanskrit,” Yoshiko adds.
Among the significant Japanese intellectuals to visit the city was the art critic Okakura Tenshin, who came to Calcutta in 1901 and stayed on for almost a year. One of the major purposes of his visit was to meet Swami Vivekananda. Later, he also built deep friendships with the renowned Bengali families such as the Tagores.
“Tagore was so inspired after being acquainted with Okakura that he started the department of Japanese Studies at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shanktiniketan,” says Dr Purabi Ganguly, who teaches Japanese at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
Yoshiko explains that Okakura was amazed by the cultural refinement of the Bengal renaissance and he also strongly sympathised with the nationalist sentiment in Bengal. He bonded with the upper class elites in Calcutta over the dilemma that they both felt about Western influences on Asian countries.
Perhaps one of the most significant remnants of Japanese cultural interest in Calcutta is the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple at Lake Road in South Kolkata’s Dhakuria. It was founded by the Japanese Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujiji who was a follower of the 12th century philosopher Bodhisattva Nichieren and also founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order of Buddhism. Fujiji came to Calcutta in 1933 and lived in the Kidderpore dock area where a number of Japanese were dwelling at that time. He set up the temple in 1935 on a piece of land donated by industrialist Jugal Kishore Birla. “Through this temple Fujiji Guruji fulfilled the dream of Nichiren, of bringing back Buddhism from Japan to its birthplace in India,” says Tshering Topgey, head priest at the temple.
The majority of the Japanese living in Calcutta, however, were sailors, engineers, traders and also diplomats since Japan had a large consulate in the city. “The Japanese at this time were following a philosophy of countering the west by building up their own technology. They wanted to showcase it to the world, particularly to the Asians,” says ethnographer and archaeologist Tathagatha Neogi, who co-founded the Calcutta-based heritage walks organisation ‘Immersive Trails’.
“So there were a lot of Japanese in Calcutta who were helping Indian engineering firms and businesses with Japanese technology,” he adds. Many of them were swadeshi businesses. For instance, at the Technological Museum in College Street market, Japanese technology was promoted as Asian triumph.
Neogi explains that the Japanese were also well known for building roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects very fast and at a cheaper rate. Consequently, a large number of the infrastructure and development projects being planned by the British government in Calcutta were given to the Japanese engineering firms. “Several of the long distance roads connecting Calcutta to the Burma border were built by them,” Neogi says. “Since they had constructed much of the roadways and bridges here, the Japanese were very well aware of the infrastructure in this region and that helped them during the Second World War.”
Ganguly says a number of Japanese shipping and trading companies too operated out of Calcutta. These included Sera Shoten Co. (food supplier to the Japanese), N.Y.K. Line, and O.S.K. Line. Cargo ships such as Toba Maru, Hakodate Maru, Akita Marku, Calcutta Maru and Osaka Maru would come to Calcutta and harbour in the Kidderpore docks. “The main cargo these Japanese ships used to bring were hosiery articles, finished steel, cloth materials and toys,” says Ganguly.
“From Calcutta they carried back iron scrap, iron ore, manganese ore, rape seed, rape cakes, sugar molases, rice etc,” she adds.
Ganguly explains, the fact that there was a significant volume of business being carried out by the Japanese in India can be gauged from the large number of Japanese staff each of these trading companies located in Calcutta would have. The Mitsubishi Company, for instance, is known to have had a continuous strength of 30 to 40 Japanese staff. In the 1920s and 30s, there also existed in Calcutta the Japanese Mercantile Association, and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce was housed in what is now the Esplanade Mansion.
The Japanese sailors in the city would frequently visit the Japanese Seamen’s club for recreational purposes. It was originally established at the Circular Garden Reach Road before being shifted to its present location at the Ballygunge Circular Road. Once the Seamen’s Club was removed after the Second World War, the same building was used for a Japanese School. Currently it houses the Indo-Japan Cultural Welfare Association founded by Dwijendra Nath Bakshi for promoting cultural relations between the two countries. The building in its present state carries many of the furniture, books and board games that were once used by the sailors.
The liveliest of Japanese social life though was centred around the Watgunj area where a majority of them resided. The house that is now popularly known as the Japani Kutir was possibly the famous Nagasaki Hotel, even though no sign of it remains today. Author Dwijendra Nath Bakshi in an 1983 article for Amrita Bazar Patrika notes that this area had a number of Japanese restaurants, hotels and entertainment centres, along with the homes of the Japanese people that lined up on both sides of the street. “Japanese songs and instrumental music would pour forth from the restaurants and the private houses,” he writes, adding that “kimono-clad Japanese girls were a common sight on Kidderpore roads.” Many of these women were the Japanese geishas living in brothels located in the area.
The Japanese are also known to have wholeheartedly participated in the sports culture of the city. “They spent their leisure time playing tennis, horse-racing, and golfing,” says Neogi. According to newspaper reports from the time, one Mr M Weda, who was a representative of the Nissho Company, is known to have become tennis champion at the South Club tournament in the 1930s.
Between December 20 and 28, 1942, Japan bombed Calcutta, then an important base for the Allied forces in the eastern theatre. Being part of the Axis powers, Japan was, at this time, fighting the Allied forces in the Second World War. Bombs were dropped over areas such as Dalhousie Square, Mangoe Lane and Hatibagan.
The air raids of December 1942 were not the last that Calcutta had to endure. In mid-January 1943, raids were carried out along the Hooghly river. Japan also carried out air attacks on Chittagong, Noakhali, Cox’s Bazaar, and Tripura. On December 5, 1943 Calcutta was bombed once again by Japan with fighter support.
“The raid was especially directed at the Kidderpore docks,” notes British sociologist David Lockwood in his book, Calcutta under Fire: The Second World War Years. He cites a report from Amrita Bazar Patrika that noted “some 500 civilian casualties of which over a third were fatal.”
Soon there were rumours of a possible enemy espionage network in the city to pass on sensitive information to the Japanese. “One of the first things that the British did soon after Japan entered the war was to close down the Japanese consulate in Calcutta,” says Neogi. He says that the British then arrested all members of the consulate and several other Japanese people in the city. They were put on a ship and sent back to Kyoto. “The remaining Japanese were then sent to the prison camp in Deoli in Rajasthan,” Neogi says.
The Second World War also affected the way Japanese intellectuals were interacting with Indians. Yoshiko says several of the Japanese intellectuals and activists sympathised with Indian nationalists and supported Subhas Chandra Bose and Rashbehari Bose. “Since in the war Japan was against the Allies which included British India, the situation became very difficult for them to openly show their sympathy with India,” she says.
Some Japanese started coming back to Calcutta from the 1950s and 60s onwards, but this was also the time when Japan itself was going through a phase of rebuilding following the destruction caused by the war. Thereafter the Japanese never had the same thriving presence in Calcutta as they had in the days before the war.