Land of the Setting Sun

Japan isn’t in the best of shape, but at least no one has lost their traditional bashful politeness. In Tokyo for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s potentially trailblazing state visit to Japan, I was trying hard to put together a list of the recent prime ministers of Japan. Not easy. Did Fukuda come before Abe? Was there someone in between Mori and Koizumi?

So I asked two Japanese standing around in my hotel. They both whipped out pieces of paper and began writing names down. They came up with different lists. Turning slightly pink in the face, they began whispering with each other.

“Too many prime ministers,” one said. They ran off to find help. That led to three Japanese discussing who followed whom. A techie solved the problem by turning to Google, a list was procured and consensus was reached. The techie added, “I hate Fukuda. So sorry.”

Tower of Power

The media team made an obligatory stop at the Tokyo Tower. I’d been there before. But a local Indian businessman told me the Tower was going to be pulled down in the next few years; local residents complained the tourists it attracted were too noisy.

I felt a twinge. Japan blazed a trail of modernization for all of East and Southeast Asia. It built the Tower in 1958, built a high-speed train in the early 1960s, staged the Olympics soon after, and became an automobile-making superpower. South Korea to Malaysia, Vietnam to China — they’ve all tried to mimic those milestones as much as possible.

But now Japan is ageing. Its trains can’t go any faster because of noise pollution limits. Toyota is having a recall every quarter. And it’s pulling down the Tokyo Tower because old people want some peace, with no obvious signs that Japan will replace it with any new totem of accomplishment. Asia’s great trailblazer is fading into a setting sun. Or is it?

Little Bit of India

The Indian Foreign Ministry gave us a dinner-cum-river boat cruise on the Sumida River on our last night in Tokyo. The Indian food served wasn’t anything to write about, but the surprise was four young Japanese dancers who did enthusiastic Bollywood dances for us.

Vikas Swaroop, a minor celebrity pretty much everywhere he goes because of his authorship of Slumdog Millionaire, is the Indian consul-general of Osaka. Even on the river boat, Japanese journalists politely asked for an interview and were equally politely turned down. But he said that India was a growing craze in Osaka.

“I can’t find enough bharat natyam dance teachers in the city to match the demand from middle-class Japanese families,” he said. I was assured pretty much every form of Indian classical dance (Manipuri, Odissi, et al.) was practiced in Japan.

More peculiar was the demand among Japanese to get their kids into Indian schools in Tokyo. A Japanese official, who lived in an area with such a school because of a concentration of Indian infotech firms, said this was driven by a desire to know English and “Indian style mathematics.” The latter, it seems, reflects a widespread belief in East Asia that Indians are whizzes in math. The only evidence: Indian students study the 14 times table.

China On the Mind

When it comes to foreign policy, the only topic in Tokyo is China. Japan’s establishment has been severely shaken by the recent island clashes between ships of both countries.

“That incident was not an accident. Fishing ships don’t charge gunships,” said a Japanese diplomat.

The English editions of Japanese newspapers for the two days in Tokyo were all about China: anti-Japanese riots across China; Chinese leaders warning Japan about the boat business; Japanese scholars discussing how to handle China.

Manmohan Singh got the most coverage when the Indo-Japanese joint statement spoke of India providing rare earths to Japan. Rare earths are crucial to Japanese industry and China has banned rare earth exports to Japan. Polls showed 80 percent plus Japanese now distrusted the Chinese. And every arbitrary Japanese we asked, “Have you been worried about what China is saying?” responded, “Of course.”



Copyright © 2010 the Hindustan Times

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