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Significance of Royal Visit and India-Japan Relations

In a rare visit abroad, the six-day India visit of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, that started on 30 November is bound to catapult India-Japan bilateral ties to a higher scale and give an uplift to the burgeoning economic and strategic contents to the relationship. That India is an emerging economy is an established fact and Japan takes cognizance of this. The suffering of the Japanese economy from prolonged recession for the past two decades coincides with its deteriorating relations with China following Chinese assertiveness in regional issues and raking up the shadow of the past. This provides a good opportunity for India and Japan to sculpt a partnership and thereby hone their economic and strategic complementarity for mutual benefits and for the region. In this background, the visit of the Emperor and Empress conveys much more than the symbolism attached to it and thus a huge milestone.

Fifty three years ago in November-December 1960, the Emperor and Empress visited India as crown prince and crown princess on their honey moon. Both retain fond memories and cherish the warmth and greeting they received at that time. That time, the royal couple in their mid-twenties had met then President Rajendra Prasad, Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They had travelled from Kolkata to Mumbai and visited various places on the way. Both cherish the memories of having firsthand experience of seeing India’s rich cultural heritage and history. They had also participated in the foundation stone laying ceremony for the India International Centre (IIC).

This time around, the royal couple visited the IIC on 3 December where they met a select group engaged in furthering India-Japan relations. Before visiting Chennai, the royal couple met President Pranab Mukherjee, whom he had met in the past in his capacity as India’s external affairs minister and with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to renew the acquaintance. On Sunday, 1 December, the royal couple took a stroll in India’s historic Lodi Garden and exchanged pleasantries with school children. The Jawaharlal Nehru University was upbeat to welcome the royal couple on 2 December where they visited the Centre for Japanese in the School of Languages, Literature & Culture Studies and the Library, besides meeting the Vice Chancellor. This is indeed a rare honour to the prestigious academic institution of the country. The JNU has been the pioneering institution in teaching the Japanese language and spreading knowledge of Japan’s history, culture, literature and foreign relations and can boast of having produced a galaxy of Japanologists whose contribution to India-Japan relations remains unmatched. The University will surely get a fillip in its future efforts from the royal visit to its campus.

The kind of importance that India attaches to its relations with Japan can be discerned from the fact that Prime Minister Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur personally received the royal couple at the airport, a departure from the usual protocol. The Prime Minister had thrice earlier set aside protocol to receive visiting dignitaries – then US President George W. Bush in 2006, Saudi King Abdullah bin Saud in 2006 and US President Barack Obama in 2010. It may be recalled when Prime Minister Singh visited Japan in may 2013, the Emperor and Empress had hosted lunch for the Singh and his wife at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in clear departure from protocol.

The royal couple is accompanied by a delegation of 50, including former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The external affairs minister Salman Khurshid has been designated the minister-in-waiting during the visit to New Delhi and Chennai. Prime Minister Singh appointed Ashwini Kumar in August 2013 as his special envoy with Cabinet rank to “prepare for the upcoming visit” of the imperial couple and for the Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit in January 2014 as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebration on January 26. This demonstrates the kind of importance that India attaches to its ties with Japan.

Japan’s Emperor is the nominal head of state and does not enjoy political powers. But the symbolism attached to the Emperor’s visit to any country signals a peak in bilateral ties. The visit of the royal couple is therefore a huge milestone in the fast-evolving partnership between Asia’s two leading democracies, whose strategic interests are converging. Though Japan has a 2,600-year history of monarchy and can boast of the world’s oldest continuous hereditary royalty despite navigating through tumultuous phases in the country’s evolution as a matured democracy and the only country in history of being a victim of nuclear bomb, and despite the old civilizational links that both India and Japan share over centuries, no Japanese Emperor had ever visited India notwithstanding the reference made in Japan about India as Tenjiku or the heavenly country.

Indeed, the year 2013 has been quite special in India’s diplomatic front. Though royalty is essentially ceremonial, India hosted two visits of royal couples – Prince Charles and his spouse Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall between November 6-14 and Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan – these send strong signal to the world of India’s reckoning as an important power in the world. The Japanese royal couple is in the twilight of their life – both are 79 – and they have avoided taking too many foreign trips, as the Emperor is not keeping good health lately. He had undergone coronary and prostate cancer surgeries in the past decade and would soon hit 80 after he returns from Chennai. It seems that their India trip could be the last trip abroad, though at an average the couple takes one trip abroad every year. The couple had travelled to Britain in May 2012 to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. Being a titular head of the country, his trip to India has been carefully calibrated and therefore forms an important part of Tokyo’s statecraft.

The Indian invitee was pending for the past decade and among around 50 invitees from other countries. India was keen to receive the royal couple last year coinciding with the celebration of the 60th year of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Japan. The current government of Abe Shinzo after it returned to power in December 2012 accepted India’s offer to make the visit possible in 2013. The visit will help remove any “psychological gap” that is often cited in business circles in Japan and facilitate increased Japanese investment.

Notwithstanding the strategic substance to the imperial symbolism attached to the visit, the fact that Japan decided to send the royal couple to India in this critical juncture means that Japan wants to deepen strategic ties with India and that India is responding positively. It transpires that mutual concern about China is the trigger, in particular China’s aggressive stance on territorial disputes targeting the Himalayas, the Senkaku islands and the South China Sea.

Japan is a strategic ally of the US and this coincides with India’s ties warming with the US. This is another factor that is driving India-Japan strategic bonding. Like Japan, other Asian countries also want to take India on board in crucial decision-making process on Asia’s regional issues that are contentious as India’s approach of decision-making is through dialogue aimed at reaching consensus as against Chinese approach to meet the goals by coercive means. That is why India commands respect and China does not. Apart from economic imperatives, geopolitical considerations will propel both India and Japan to deepen ties and the royal visit is a huge milestone in this direction.

Japan’s investment in India is not much as expected as there are perceptional gaps. India needs to address this issue. But India can take a message from the fact that the visit of the royal couple to China in 1992 heralded a sharp upswing in Japan’s trade and investment with China, making China soon as the world’s major manufacturing hub. With the recent aggressive stances of China on territorial issues in the East China Sea, leading to deteriorating Japan-China ties in recent times, can India seize the opportunity to take India-Japan ties to a higher pedestal by giving a stronger spine to the economic and strategic contents? These are huge challenges as well opportunities for the political leaders of both India and Japan.

Though the China factor in bringing both India and Japan closer cannot be discounted, India made a conscious announcement that the royal couple’s visit is not politically linked. This is because it was perceived in some quarter that the visit was linked to the gathering tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over China’s Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea. Shambhu Kumaran, Director (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs clarified that the essential practice is for the Emperor “to be studiously away from political and contemporary issues”. India further clarified that the visit had nothing to do with the ongoing negotiations on a civil nuclear agreement between the two countries.

Why Chennai?

Chennai was chosen as the second city for the royal visit on 4-5 December because Chennai has emerged as the second largest concentration of Japanese expatriates after the National Capital Region. After India introduced liberalization, Chennai has emerged as a major hub for the software and automotive industries. The number of Japanese residing in the state of Tamil Nadu, majority of whom reside in and around Chennai, was 750, while, as of October 2012, the number of Japanese companies totaled 344 out of the total of over 800 all over India. The royal couple visited Kalakshetra Foundation and Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, besides a luncheon engagement with the Governor.

There are a lot of cultural similarities between the two countries. One of them was biwa, a musical instrument in Japan, similar to the veena, widely used in South India. Being the symbol of the State and unity of the Japanese people, the royal’s visit will contribute and promote people-to-people contact.

Though bilateral ties remained low key during the Cold War years and frozen temporarily after India detonated the nuclear test in 1998, the past decade and a half have seen the deepening of ties in strategic sectors and this culminated in the royal visit. Cooperation in sectors such as infrastructure development, defence and nuclear are poised to fetch huge dividend for both in the coming years. Each of these sectors has the potentials of getting billions of dollars in investment. Japan has also made an exception for India to the proposal to transfer an amphibious aircraft with military application. Though all interactions remained formal, the MEA observed that “the visit will immeasurably expand and strengthen India-Japan strategic and global partnership”.


India left no stone unturned to make the visit special. Both have civilizational roots, both are democracies and their economies are complementary and not competitive. India was the first country to receive Japanese ODA way back in 1957 and has remained the largest aid donor ever since. Lately, following China’s emergence and growing assertiveness, like other small Asian countries, India and Japan share common concerns. India has taken pains to allay Chinese fear that India-Japan bonhomie is not aimed at “countering China” and that Emperor’s visit is “non-political”. The Deccan Herald rightly observed in its editorial (2 December 2013) thus: “Indeed, it would be a pity if a historic visit were to be reduced to preoccupation with a single issue – a rising China.” It further observed: “While concerns over China are understandable, Delhi must avoid being seen to be part of anti-China groupings as an insecure China is not in India’s long-term security interests. There are areas in which India and Japan, perhaps China too, can work together.” In particular, as the world economies get more interconnected, maritime commerce is always on the agenda to secure smooth and free trade and therefore securing the sea lanes of communication infested with piracy and possible maritime terrorism are issues that demand immediate attention of world powers. In fact, the Indian Ocean region is too important as the economies of the three countries – India, Japan and China – run on oil carried by tankers plying its waters. India and Japan have huge responsibility to work together. They can take a lead in crafting an Asian security framework that is based on cooperation, rather than conflict and confrontation. Getting China involved in the process of designing such architecture could be desirable as China would feel important as a stake holder in this process.

( The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda, is Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies and Centre for Korean Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU, New Delhi. E-mail:

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