Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the unprecedented gesture of travelling to Kyoto to meet Narendra Modi on Saturday, flagging the importance of the growing relationship between Asia's second and third-largest economies.
Modi landed at Kansai airport in Osaka at around 5pm Japan time (13:30 IST), emerging from the Air-India aircraft in a dark-coloured bandhgala jacket. He was then driven to nearby Kyoto to meet Abe over a vegetarian banquet at the city mayor’s residence, the day’s only official engagement.
Abe normally meets dignitaries in the capital Tokyo, and travelling 500 kilometres to Kyoto clearly means that the Japanese are going out of their way to honour the Indian PM, local observers said.
"Japanese leaders have hosted get-togethers in Kyoto before but this is the first time I can recall that the prime minister went to meet a visiting dignitary and thereby honour his arrival," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
Ahead of the dinner, the two leaders witnessed the signing of a "partner city affiliate" agreement for Kyoto and Varanasi covering city modernisation and conservation intended to be a framework for smart heritage cities.The Kyoto leg of the trip, kept secret until close to the date of Modi’s arrival, has interesting resonances. The city is the old imperial capital of Japan, something an ardent nationalist like Abe is bound to cherish.
That it is a prime example of how to develop a heritage city without losing its character chimes nicely with Modi's plans for his parliamentary constituency, Varanasi.
"The choice of venue is significant because it is a chance to highlight to Modi Japan's most attractive urbanscape where tradition and modernity have been balanced and highlight the common cultural roots in Buddhism," said Kingston.
Takashi Shimada, president of the Indo Business Centre consultancy, called the Abe initiative unprecedented, adding that it was “a clear message to our neighbours”, a reference to China.
Time together at Kyoto will give the two leaders an opportunity to have a quiet interaction away from the hustle and bustle – and greater media glare — of Tokyo.
It’s possible that one of the topics over dinner could be the civilian nuclear deal, where the men could use their interpersonal chemistry to dissolve several sticking points. These largely centre around Japanese sensitivities over the N-word and India’s reluctance to provide still more assurances over a moratorium on testing.
It is understood that the deal will go down to the wire, and even on Saturday officials were saying that the sides were still talking, a process that began in 2010.
An agreement would allow Japanese companies to provide vital components for nuclear plants in India, which would ease the way for big Western investments into the sector. There will still be other roadblocks such as Indian nuclear liability laws, which make foreign companies responsible for paying out damages in case of an accident.
Modi’s programme in Kyoto on Sunday includes a visit to the Toji temple, a Buddhist shrine, and to laboratories specialising in stem cell research.