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Bengal and Japan ~ I

Swami Vivekananda‘s first-hand reports about Japan through his letters, lectures, etc. had only one message for the young students of India ‘Look East‘, go to Japan and learn from them about the development strategy of the Meiji Government and how they implemented their plans.


Though Buddhism is often cited as the oldest civilizational connect of India with the larger Asia whose influence remains as relevant today as it was centuries ago, one remarkable trend in the past 100+ years or so is Bengal’s special affinity with Japan.

This article shall explain the roles played by some selected eminent persons from Bengal in bringing India and Japan closer. In contemporary times, prominent Indians associated with Japan were Swami Vivekananda, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, freedom fighter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Justice Radha Binod Pal. The role of another Indian freedom fighter, Rash Behari Bose, in forging the India-Japan friendship is no less important.

Each of these luminaries from Bengal left a huge impact in contributing to the friendship between the two countries. This article is a remembrance to the contributions of these personalities.

The first in my list is the role played by Swami Vivekananda. Born in January 1863, he died at the young age of 39 in July 1902 but not before leaving his influence on the human consciousness. Born as Narendranath Datta, Vivekananda was a Hindu monk and a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world.

It was he who raised interfaith awareness and brought Hinduism to the status of a major world religion in the eyes of the West. Being an advocate of the Hindu reform movement, his concept of nationalism in colonial India stirred up the human consciousness at a time when India was seeking a voice of its own and clamouring to be free from the colonial yoke. His bestknown speech began with the words “Sisters and brothers of America”, in which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Vivekananda was inclined towards spirituality and soon assumed the status of a patriotic saint. His birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day.

His visit to Japan on his way to the World Congress of Religions in 1893 opened a great vista to the people of India about Japan and the Japanese. His firsthand reports about Japan through his letters, lectures, etc. had only one message for the young students of India, “Look East”, go to Japan and learn from them about the development strategy of the Meiji Government and how they implemented their plans.

He conveyed to the Indians also his impressions about other traits of the Japanese, their discipline, their cleanliness, etc. Vivekananda admired Japan’s emphasis on compulsory universal education. Vivekananda’s call to the youth led to many Indian students going to Japan for higher education to learn about advances made in science and technology.

The Indian students under the aegis of the Oriental Youngmen’s association also hoped that Japan would become the hub for Asian students to exchange ideas, provide mutual encouragement and that on finishing their studies they would be the pioneers in bringing about development and enlightenment for Asia.

Thus knowledge gained in Japan seemed to give opportunities and hope for the bright future of Asia. The second Bengali at the intellectual level with a Japan connection is none other than Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1862-1941).

His friendship with Japanese art historian and curator Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913) was path-breaking in the context of Asian renaissance and a new awakening in asserting Asian identity. They met for the first time in Calcutta in 1902. Okakura became an overnight celebrity in Japan at the outbreak of the Pacific War.

The first line of his 1903 publication The Ideals of the East ~ “Asia is one”~ was celebrated posthumously as the most powerful expression of Japanese wartime aspirations, and Okakura was considered a visionary of Japanese political ascendancy in Asia.

Though the two distinguished friends met only a few times, their friendship endured and the ramifications of their friendship involved the artistic and intellectual movement of the early 20th century. Rustom Barucha’s magisterial work on this friendship is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of IndiaJapan relations.

The book weaves through an intricate tapestry of ideas relating to panAsianism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and friendship, and positions the early modernist tensions of the period within ~ and against ~ the spectre of a unified Asia that concealed considerable political differences.

Okakura’s The Ideals of the East and The Awakening of the East posited well with Tagore’s radical critique of Nationalism, the matching of which provided deep insights into how the Orient travelled with and beyond Asia.

Despite the Tagore-Okakura friendship being widely talked and written about, the two had differences on a host of issues regarding their views. The word “nationalism” carried different meanings for them. While Tagore’s focus was mainly on India, Okakura looked more to the West and helped build the Boston Museum as curator by acquiring artifacts mainly from Japan and China but hardly anything from India, which troubled Tagore.

Tagore started viewing and re-examining what exactly Okakura meant when he said in the opening sentence of his book that “Asia is one”.

When Tagore visited Japan in 1916 on a lecture tour, he was critical of its preoccupations with material progress and did not mention Okakura in his lectures. There were other differences between Tagore’s and Okakura’s lifestyles.

While Tagore dressed in flowing robes and expressed his views eloquently particularly in his native Bengal, he used English as an appendage and as a mere additional tool, Okakura presented himself as a Japanese in traditional costume but communicated mainly in English and scarcely wrote in his own language.

While Okakura enhanced a marvellous museum collection in a country other than his own, Tagore established a university to continue his legacy in Bengal. The differences between the two friends became too glaring when Japan, after defeating two great powers, Russia and China, and which temporarily resonated with Asian awakening against the imperial West and seeking its own identity, chose a militaristic adventurist policy to colonize Asia.

Tagore disapproved of this but it was endorsed by Okakura. In particular, Tagore was critical of Japan’s Great Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere definition.

From admiration, Tagore turned into a critic, particularly after Japan choose to adopt an aggressive foreign policy. Though the Sino-Japanese war of 1894- 95, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 and then Japan ousting China from Korea caught the attention of Indian intellectuals and the people in general, Tagore was troubled by Japan’s aggressive behaviour.

Also, Indian businessmen engaged in the cotton and textile trade became very apprehensive of Japan ousting them from the Chinese markets. Thus there were both expectations and also a sense of disquiet with regard to Japan.

(To be concluded)