Sunday, July 19, 2009

Part-I, Make the Twain Meet

Indo-Japan relations is not a new topic. Relationship between these two countries started long long ago and the Japanese knew about the existence of India as “Tenjiku” ever since Buddhism was imported into Japan through China and Korea. I would not like to go into such stale details that can be found in almost all history books relating to India and Japan. Though a die-hard optimist, in my opinion, Indo-Japan relationship still has to go a long way in order to really establish permanent ties between the people of these two nations. It is the people of the country who make a nation and ties between two nations means ties between the people of those two nations, culturally and otherwise, so much so that there is great, if not complete, understanding and affability coupled with a sense of attachment towards each other. The plain truth is that knowledge about each other’s country exists only in very limited circles in both India and Japan.

In India, the average educated population knows about Japan as the country of electronic goods in recent times. Fifty years back, this image was a bit different. Stories from my grandfather and people of his age reveal that the Japan they knew in those times was a country that made extremely cheap and highly unreliable products. My granddad had been presented with a Japanese bicycle by his father. The two wheeled contraption cost his father twenty rupees and within a week the front wheel of the bicycle came off beyond repair! Needless to say, he had to be covered in bandages for the rest of the week after the incident. At present, the image is just the opposite and Japanese electronic goods are the most reliable products in the market. Almost every middle class family in India is familiar with SONY. SONY, Sumo, Sayonara, along with Honda, Toyota etc. are part of the limited vocabulary about Japan. And, of course, many people have heard about Mt. Fuji ‘Yama’. There does not seem much interest either in finding out about Japan because information is difficult to obtain and not much is shown on television. People still have ideas that the Japanese are some ‘strange’ race and may actually be eating insects and cockroaches for lunch and dinner! Now there is nothing wrong in eating insects. In fact, I heard that fried grasshoppers are a delicacy in some country. But here in India we do tend to look upon insect eating humans as some sort of ‘loony alien’. On the lighter side, like many people around the world, we eat prawns though, which are biologically classified as insects.

How does an average Japanese lead his life? This is a basic question that most Indians will fail to answer. They can hardly differentiate between a Korean, a Chinese and a Japanese, especially as looks or language is concerned. I remember a person in our neighborhood who brought in something written in Korean and asked me to read it after knowing that I was learning Japanese! He insisted that there must be some similarity when I told him I could not read it.

But little efforts can can really make the common man interested in an apparently queer land and its people. Oshin was a serial shown on the Indian national television some years ago over quite a long period of time. It was a popular serial and I have actually seen people glued to the television, crying and laughing when Oshin did in the serial. People had been held spellbound by the story of a Japanese girl. “Love in Tokyo” was a Hindi film which made the common masses in India realize about the existence of Japan. Is it too expensive for the governments of both countries to air more such programs? This is the best way in today’s age by which people of one country can learn about another.

Now about the Japanese and their knowledge about India. The Japanese will tell you that all Indians look alike! The situation is no better than that here. Ask any Japanese about his/ her image about India and the only words that seem to pop out instantly are ‘kare-‘ and ‘ushi’, the former meaning spicy curry of the Indian subcontinent and the latter cows that can be found everywhere in India, even on highways causing massive traffic jams. I have seen a few Japanese magazines that have portrayed India, and most of the photographs in them were of cows on streets, spiced food, pictures of a few dilapidated houses and tribal people living in utter penury. That is definitely a part of real India, but surely that is not what the whole of India is! Cows and curry can hardly account as major areas of a country’s image. I can understand the surprise and shock the Japanese experience in India. Cows on roads for one thing is unthinkable in Japan. I would like to remind about the deer in Nara prefecture that roam freely. The case is similar.

Having had the good fortune of actually being in Japan for a very short time, we had been taken to an elementary school to experience first hand how and what the children of Japan study in school. It was quite interesting to note that the students had music as well as swimming lessons as part of their curriculum. The Indian education experts should take a cue from this. There was an hour’s session reserved for students there to ask questions about our country. The following are some of the questions the Japanese children asked us:
1. Indo ni ha spoon ga arimasu ka? i.e. Do you have spoons in your country? (They thought that we eat with our hands so have never seen or used spoons).
2. Spoon de taberaremasu ka? – Can you use a spoon?
3. Ie ni sunde imasu ka? Sono ie ni ha yane ga arimasu ka? – Do you stay in a house? And when I said yes I do, they asked me whether that house had a roof or not.
4. Indo de ha michi de tora to hebi ga dete kurun desu ka? – Do snakes and tigers suddenly come out on Indian roads?

There are many such strange questions which I took to be mere childish imagination or ignorance at first, but later realized it to be actually lack of proper sources of knowledge about India. Celebrating fifty years of Indo-Japan relations after the world war, seems to be only a diplomatic exercise at the ministerial level. Nothing concrete is being done to introduce the common people of the two countries to each others culture and ways of living. Staging of a Hindi masala movie (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, titled Mimora in Japanese) in the Japanese Diet is definitely not the only way to celebrate such an important landmark. In India too, people are not much aware of Japanese books and films. Only people who are studying Japanese or are related to Japan in some way or the other, have some knowledge about the country.

My own host family in Japan has a few books in Japanese about India. It is books such as these that give superficial, wrong and insufficient knowledge about India to the average Japanese reader who take even a little bit of interest in India. Misinformation is even worse than knowing nothing at all. I think celebrating of fifty years of our relationship should be in the form of India week being arranged in Japan and Japan week being arranged in India, with a troupe of cultural performers going across different parts of the country and educating the audience through competent interpreters.

The Hindi department of a university in Osaka, Japan, has published a book of Japanese songs translated into Hindi. But sadly, the only audiences for these translated songs are a few Japanese students of Hindi, and a few students like us who are studying the Japanese language. The governments of the two countries should make it a point to broadcast the recent best of Japanese and Indian films/ television serials, with subtitles if required, on the national network of television programs at least over a year long period. These are little efforts which may actually be a great deal.

The youth of almost ever country in the world are being affected by funky hip-hop MTV culture that is ceaselessly being broadcast over television networks. Part of the blame lies with the media that is trying to project this as the on culture that is hip. Apart from the fact that this is not just what America is about, an over abundance of a certain type of program or propaganda means that the youth are being deprived of knowing about other cultures. That is because there is so little to choose from. This is as true for Japan as it is for India. Give the youth a variety of cultures to choose from and see what happens. There will be plenty of choice about what to ape.

The issue is simple. Forget the gimmicks of flowery language, terming something as fifty years of etc. etc. We must decide whether we really want to spread awareness and influence of Japanese and Indian culture in each other’s country or just limit it to only a handful of people who are doing some sort of work related to these two countries.

1. This essay was published in Sangam on the occasion of fifty years of Indo-Japan relationship (2002).
2. This was written before I had the opportunity to stay in Japan for a long time. Much remains the same but things are changing. With the internet, there is more information available, though much of it may not be so reliable.
3. Like many foreigners still imagine, on his first visit to Japan, one of my seniors thought that the Japanese people still move about in Kimonos daily. He was in for a shock when he landed in Tokyo and found people in Bermudas and mini-skirts!
4. Historically and culturally speaking, the relationship between India and Japan has been superficial at best. There are many reasons for this. This will be dealt with later. A sequel to this article follows soon. Look out for part-II.

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