My Japanology / Immensely touched by ‘Guest-is-God’ hospitality in Osaka

Kaname Yoneyama/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador of India to Japan Sujan Chinoy speaks during an interview with The Japan News at the Indian Embassy in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan News Japan and India have seen their bilateral relationship grow by leaps and bounds in the last few years amid Asia’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. While the two countries’ prime ministers continue to take steps to make the Special Strategic and Global Partnership even more substantial, India’s envoy to Tokyo, Ambassador Sujan Chinoy, disclosed how he first came into contact with Japan, and discussed Indian issues as well as the future of India and Japan’s vibrant ties, in an interview with The Japan News.

Q: You came to Osaka in 1978 as an exchange student. How did that come about?

Chinoy: What triggered my interest in Japan is that when I was growing up, I had a fascination insofar as East Asia was concerned. My own family had old trading links with China of the pre-Opium War days. In the early 19th century, one of my ancestors traveled from India to Shanghai and lived there for 12 years. My family surname became Chinoy as a result.

I was about 6 when I decided that I would be a diplomat, and I never changed my goal. My mother always encouraged me to join the Indian Foreign Service. When I was in Ahmedabad preparing for my ultimate goal, I was also doing an MBA. I saw a notice board in Gujarat University, which said there was an exchange program with a university in Japan, and two students will get this wonderful opportunity to go. The selection will be on the basis of an essay competition.

Japan held a fascination for me as a country that I had heard so much about but didn’t know much about. So, for the essay competition, I spent the next several weeks going to the library and reading everything on Japan.

Then, I was one of the two selected. I went later that year to Otemon Gakuin University in Ibaraki city, Osaka. I was firstly made to feel at home. There was a university mess where all the Japanese students ate. My first emotional connect was with the elderly couple there. They were so kind that the lack of language made no difference. That lady was like a mother, and the gentleman was like a father. They gave me special food every day and asked me a hundred times what else I wanted. I was immensely touched by that.

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  • Kaname Yoneyama/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador of India to Japan Sujan Chinoy speaks during an interview.

I was also very comfortable because we had a professor of Indian origin, Prof. Sandip Tagore, who now lives in retirement in Osaka. He was one of the first Indians to have come to Japan in the 1950s. I also had a wonderful teacher, Higuchi-sensei. He passed away a few years ago.

I have fulfilled my “giri” [obligation] to Prof. Tagore by recommending him — and rightly so, not just because I was his student — for a national award in India. The president of India bestowed on Prof. Tagore this year what we call the “Pravasi Bharatiya Samman” (Overseas Indian Award).

During this period, I was exposed to virtually everything in Japan. Often there was a price to pay for being out with the mischievous guys on the campus. I was still learning the language, but they taught me things that I ought not to learn. For instance, they told me to address Prof. Higuchi by saying “Tako-sensei.” I didn’t know they had a pet name for him, called Octopus. That’s where I came across the friendly nature of the Japanese people, the ability to joke and the ability to accept foreigners.

I also had about 20 home stays. As an ambassador, you can never hope to have anything like a genuine home stay. I went to the richest of these students’ homes and the average homes, but the one thing that was common was omotenashi [Japanese hospitality]. The concept reminded me of the things that we share in common between India and Japan. We also have the concept of “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama.” In Sanskrit, we say “Atithi Devo Bhava,” — the Guest is God.

I visited many beautiful places, like Amanohashidate, Kinosaki and various hot springs. I was also brought to Tokyo by Prof. Tagore, and he brought me here [to the Indian Embassy] to have a courtesy call on then-ambassador. I experienced the Shinkansen then. Today, I am working to take the Shinkansen to India. I sat in the Shinkansen way back in 1978.

Q: What are differences between today’s Japan and that of 1978?

A: I would say the Japanese culture, being so deep and so ancient, is intact. It’s a very strong culture with deeply rooted traditions.

When I came back after 38 years, changes that I noticed were: In the ’70s, Japan was at the peak of its economic development and growth, and was like the only developed country in Asia. It was the only place with skyscrapers, with the fast trains, and it was a mind-boggling experience for someone coming from any other part of Asia to see how perfect and how economically advanced Japan was. I would say the difference today is that while Japan still has all that, many other parts of Asia look similar in terms of infrastructure, especially the skyscrapers, though not with regard to the systems, and not the mind-set, and not necessarily the same high level of integrity which the Japanese have.

What distinguishes Japan is the perfection with which things are done, the honesty and integrity with which the systems are implemented.

Yokosuka epicenter of curry

Q: Have you had any trouble with Japanese food?

A: Most people in India are vegetarians. So, when an Indian comes here, the food is very different. But I was not a vegetarian. I had no difficulty eating Japanese food. I wasn’t quite used to chopsticks, but I learnt the art of using chopsticks when I came here as a student.

Q: What is your impression of Japanese versions of curry?

A: I think the Japanese curries are very distinct. When I came in 1978, I ate an enormous amount of Japanese curries. Let me tell you a story about Japanese curries. Japanese curries are something that came originally from India to Japan. But not directly — they came through the British. The British had a history of eating curry and being in India for hundreds of years. In the early 1900s, the Japanese and the British had a naval alliance and the two navies had a lot of exchanges. The Japanese sailors used to suffer from deficiency of vitamin B1, which is plentiful in wheat but not in rice. So the British Navy suggested a solution to eat a curry made of wheat. Japanese curry is made from wheat flour. Indian curries are made from spices, herbs, onions, garlic and tomato paste.

Japan is the only country in the world which has a Curry Festival. Even India doesn’t have one. The naval base at Yokosuka is therefore the epicenter of the curry.

Q: There is a yoga boom in Japan.

A: Yoga is an ancient Indian practice which enables a person to keep the mind and body healthy. In 2014, the Prime Minister of India proposed to the United Nations an International Day of Yoga. It was supported by 177 countries, including Japan. In 2015, on June 21, the first International Day of Yoga was celebrated globally. It was also recognized by UNESCO in 2016 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Yoga is a legacy of India and now a global patrimony.

On April 4, a ceremony to launch the first-ever Parliamentary League for the Promotion of Yoga in the Japanese Diet took place in Nagatacho in the presence of Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of Art of Living, and was attended by a large gathering of parliamentarians and members of yoga organizations. I would like to thank member of the House of Representatives Hakubun Shimomura for his passion in realizing this.

Q: What can you tell us about India’s tourism campaign?

A: Many more people today travel to India as tourists to visit its rich tourism heritage. We have some of the world’s highest mountains, some of the best powder ski slopes, some of the most expansive deserts, the most exciting jungles and forests, with teeming wildlife, with abundance of flora and fauna and the bounties of nature, with lions, tigers, and elephants and a rich bird life. We have monuments like the Taj Mahal and historic forts like the Red Fort in Delhi.

This is a country where Buddha taught the values of compassion, peace and nonviolence. This is the land where Mahatma Gandhi gave to humankind his ideas of truth and nonviolence.

India also has a rich tradition of medical tourism. People visit India for Ayurveda, which has existed for thousands of years. Today, Ayurveda is widely followed all over the world as alternative medicine without side effects.

CEOs fill business class

Q: Japan is hosting the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Any advice on tourism?

A: It’s a welcome step that the Japanese authorities are in the midst of opening several new offices of the Japan National Tourism Organization overseas, including one in Delhi. With the office’s opening, we will possibly see greater awareness of Japan’s rich tourism resources among Indian people. Outbound tourism in India is growing at a rapid pace. I think for the 2020 Olympics we will see many more Indians traveling to Japan.

The Japanese side has recently relaxed some of the visa requirements for university students. That will give the youth of India a greater chance and reason to visit Japan not just to travel and see things in Japan, but also to learn a great deal. It is my prime minister’s vision that Japan will play a very important role in the transformation that India is undergoing today and in achieving the aspirations that we have identified for our people. We hope to realize that with the fullest participation of Japan in the Indian economy.

Investments from Japan to India are growing at a geometric pace today. In the last financial year, 2015-16, $2.6 billion worth of investments flowed from Japan to India. But in the first nine months alone of the financial year 2016-17, from April to December, the quantum of investments rose dramatically to $4.2 billion. India is emerging as the next big alternative and destination for Japan’s investments.

Virtually every Japanese company of note, whether in manufacturing, logistics, cold chains, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, or the automotive industry, are all looking optimistically at India. If you go on any of the 28 flights we have per week between India and Japan, you would find that the business class section is full of CEOs and the rest of the plane is full of travelers.

On our part, we have greatly relaxed the visa regime for Japanese travelers. We have decided to give 10-year, multiple-entry business visas. We have introduced what is called the e-Visa for Japan. We have also introduced visa-on-arrival. I think this is going to mean a great deal for us in the future. The Special Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan is set to grow. It will be the determining partnership for the 21st century.

India ‘acts East’

Q: You are a China expert. What future do you see among India, China and Japan?

A: Good relations between these three countries are very important. Relations between India and China, or between India and Japan, or between Japan and China, are not to be seen as a zero-sum game. At the same time, it is very important to look for ways and means to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region develops a consensus based on shared values. I have no hesitation in saying that India and Japan have shared values. We stand for transparency and openness. We are democracies. We believe in the rule of law, the freedom of navigation, the freedom of overflight, and we believe that by bringing our energies and shared values together, we can provide the basis and foundation for maintaining peace, stability and promoting prosperity in the entire Asian landmass.

India and Japan have a wonderful values-based relationship. We can work with a broader audience to narrow down differences and ensure that our traditional wisdom of the past does not go to waste.

Our ancients have taught us how to live together in peace and harmony. We also believe that we should use our resources to promote connectivity in the region for the larger good. We should try to ensure that we create infrastructure and connectivity which is not hardwired for the strategic requirements of individual countries but for the larger and common good.

India believes that there is great scope here for India and Japan to work together, by bringing our Act East policy to work in tandem with Japan’s Enhanced Partnership for Quality Infrastructure. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy of Prime Minister Abe also contains many good ideas.

We are all inhabitants in Asia. We will have to work together. We will have to live together. We must do so in the firm conviction that there is space for us to air our differences, to narrow our differences, but to always ensure that differences are resolved only through peaceful dialogue, not through any kind of unilateralism or threat of force. Asia should continue to remain multipolar. There is space for us to prosper together.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Managing Editor Michio Hayashi and Staff Writer Ayako Hirayama.

After attending the Rajkumar College in Rajkot, Ambassador Chinoy obtained a degree in English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda and an MBA degree at Gujarat University in Ahmedabad. In 1978, he studied at Otemon Gakuin University in Osaka as an exchange student. After joining the Indian Foreign Service in 1981, he earned a diploma in Chinese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chinoy assumed his current post in December 2015. He has been posted to such countries as China, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Mexico and at India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York.

(From April 9, 2017, issue)

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