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Home / Columns / Tracing Japan’s engagement with modern India

Tracing Japan’s engagement with modern India

There is a stock, stereotypical, image of the Japanese tourist, who rushes to and through a monument or shrine in a foreign country, clicking away. Things were once different in the 19th and early 20th centuries when these came as seekers and pilgrims, rather than pleasure-seekers

columns Updated: Dec 29, 2019 08:23 IST
In the 21st century, travel between countries has become easier than it ever was before. You come and go from a foreign land very quickly; and you breeze through the sites you wish to see quickly too. Hence the sort of Japanese tourist we Indians see rushing through the Taj Mahal, Ajanta and Ellora, the Victoria Memorial, Humayun’s Tomb, and a hundred other places
In the 21st century, travel between countries has become easier than it ever was before. You come and go from a foreign land very quickly; and you breeze through the sites you wish to see quickly too. Hence the sort of Japanese tourist we Indians see rushing through the Taj Mahal, Ajanta and Ellora, the Victoria Memorial, Humayun’s Tomb, and a hundred other places(REUTERS)

This column is being written on Christmas Day, and will appear in print shortly before the New Year. This week, I thought, I should write on something other than “a burning topic of the day”. So here goes.

There is a stock, stereotypical, image of the Japanese tourist, who rushes to and through a monument or shrine in a foreign country, clicking away. As one website has it, “The Japanese tourist has become a ubiquitous figure throughout the world. Typically, he or she is part of a travel group with a guide waving a small flag, moving the group at a rapid pace through the day’s schedule. The tourist is heavily slung with cameras, video recorders, and perhaps a tape recorder to catch a bird call. The clothes appear to be nearly a uniform with small variations between members of the group. Tour groups follow the same itinerary and the same tour buses follow each other in the same lock-step that the members of each group follow.”

In the 21st century, travel between countries has become easier than it ever was before. You come and go from a foreign land very quickly; and you breeze through the sites you wish to see quickly too. Hence the sort of Japanese tourist we Indians see rushing through the Taj Mahal, Ajanta and Ellora, the Victoria Memorial, Humayun’s Tomb, and a hundred other places.

Things were once different, as I discovered while reading a fascinating account of Japanese visitors to India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notably, these were seekers and pilgrims, rather than pleasure-seekers. Their stories have been rehabilitated in Richard Jaffe’s recent book, Seeking Sakyamuni, South Asia in the Formation of Modern Japanese Buddhism.

Among the first Japanese travellers to India was a certain Nanjo Bun’yu (1849-1927) who had studied Sanskrit with Max Müller at Oxford, sparking his curiosity in the land of the Buddha. Nanjo came to India in 1887. He was followed soon after by a slew of Japanese scholars, who came to India, or Ceylon, or both, visiting Buddhist sites. As Jaffe writes, “These ventures into South Asian hinterlands by early Japanese Buddhist travellers were not just opportunistic tourist junkets undertaken at convenient entrepots en route to Japan from Europe. … That the Japanese would bother with these perilous South Asian pilgrimages to Buddhist sites — a number of Japanese Buddhists subsequently died making the journey — underscores the importance that South Asia would play in Japanese Buddhist sites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Some visitors made a tour of the sites and returned. Others came to learn languages and study ancient texts with pandits, hoping thereby to arrive at a better understanding of “the true practices and precept lineage of the Buddha”. These scholars took back books, relics, and artefacts associated with Buddhism in South Asia, furthering the connection between their land and ours. They helped reshape Japanese Buddhist religious practices and architectural styles on the basis of what they had seen and studied in India and Sri Lanka.

As Jaffe demonstrates, travels back and forth between Japan and India were enabled by two of the great new technologies of the 19th century — the steamship and the railway. The first aided movement between Japan and South Asia; the latter, movement within South Asia itself. By the early 20th century, there was also a thriving trade between India and Japan, particularly in cotton and cotton products, furthering closer interactions between these two great and ancient cultures that had hitherto been largely unconnected from one another.

Also facilitating this process of cultural exchange was the phenomenon known as “pan-Asianism”, whereby activists and ideologues sought to built a network of trans-continental solidarity aimed at ending the European domination of Asia. Pan-Asianism came in two forms; one which “emphasized the importance of spiritual values among all Asians, counterposing them to the materially oriented Europeans and Americans”, and a second, more politically charged variety, “in which Japan was seen as the rightful, indispensable leader of an alliance of Asian nations in a struggle against European and American colonial powers”. In this latter type of pan-Asianism, writes Jaffe, “Japan, because of her successful modernization, military might, and cultural sophistication, was the only nation capable of leading other Asians in their struggle with Europe and the United States”.

A central figure in Seeking Sakyamuni is Kawaguchi Ekai (1866-1945), a Japanese scholar who spent almost two decades in India and Tibet, including a full seven years in Benares. This is how Jaffe describes his daily regimen with his teachers in the holy city of the Hindus: “Rising each day at 5:30 am, Kawaguchi would practice zazen and bathe. Following a thirty-minute teatime, Kawaguchi would then read an English translation of the Dhammasangani until 9:30 am, when he would turn his attention to practicing Sanskrit reading and grammar for two hours. Following another thirty-minute meal and a break, from 2-5:00 pm, he would practice orally translating Sanskrit, then review Sanskrit grammar until 6:30 pm, Kawaguchi would attend class from an hour from 7:30-8:30 pm, then continue practicing oral translation until 10:00 pm, followed by another hour of review!”.

Here was a Japanese “tourist” altogether different from the Japanese tourists we know of today.

In the political imagination of modern India, Japan is the land that gave succour to Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA). In the technological imagination of modern India, Japan is the land that will quickly and efficiently connect the trading centres of Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Seeking Sakyamuni takes us back to a time before the INA and the bullet train, when the two countries were brought together by the interest of spiritually inclined Japanese in the greatest of all Indians.

This column will return in 2020, when I suspect that — the way things are going — it will have to focus once more on the contentious issues of the present, rather than provide charming sidelights from the past.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World
The views expressed are personal