Big Talk

Building a Japanese-Indian Partnership That Contributes to the World

Vibhav Kant Upadhyay came to Japan as an international student. After completing a graduate program at the University of Tokyo, he started the India Center Foundation as his base of activities for continual efforts to help build a new relationship between Japan and India. Toshio Motoya spoke with Upadhyay, who advocates for a Japanese-Indian global partnership that contributes to the world, about topics such as visions for new development models to promote across the globe.

Japan and India will be the core of Asia, just like when Germany and France started the EU

(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I’ve met with you in various places, so I thought I had already interviewed you.

(U) I look forward to talking with you.

(M) I heard 23 years have already passed since you launched the India Center Foundation after earning your master’s degree from the University of Tokyo. You are still young, so I found this surprising.

(U) I started the India Center Foundation when I was 26.

(M) I think it’s amazing that you came up with this idea to connect India and Japan at that age. You’ve done a great deal to cultivate trust in the Japanese-Indian relationship. You are doing a range of activities based on the clear concept of, “A strong India will contribute to a strong Japan, and a strong Japan will contribute to a strong India.” What inspired you to start the India Center Foundation?

(U) When I came to Japan as an international student, I wanted to help strengthen the Japanese-Indian relationship and solve the major challenges facing humankind. My father was a university professor, and many of my relatives were professors or politicians. I’ve interacted with people like that since I was a child, which refined my view of nations and the world. I realized the relationship between India and Japan was immature, and that the ideal relationship had yet to be built. It was like cousins who used to play together but have moved to other countries – they share some memories, but they can’t do anything together. I was thinking about this when I came to Japan in 1992 and studied computer science at the University of Tokyo’s School of Science.

(M) It sounds like you had a clear goal in coming to Japan. In general, do many Indian people study abroad in the United States or England?

(U) Yes, many go to the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in England, or Harvard University and Stanford University in the U.S. I could have studied in the U.S., but I chose the University of Tokyo. My entire family was totally opposed to this – they said I should go to Japan after graduating from an American university, but I wanted to go to Japan right away. I’ve actually studied Japanese since the age of 12 by watching Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) programs, reading books, and listening to people.

(M) You’ve been able to contribute to both countries thanks to this choice, which is great for Japan and India alike. Today, nuclear weapons are always in the background of a nation’s power. Japan’s neighbors are all nuclear weapons states. Japan is the only country that has been the target of a nuclear attack, and many people feel antipathy about nuclear weapons. However, Japan must have nuclear force considering the balance of power in East Asia. We should abolish the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and conclude a nuclear sharing agreement with the U.S. To ensure peace and safety, I think profound cooperation with India on national security will be important as well.

(U) That is one method. The European Union (EU) was established by France and Germany, who worked together despite their unfriendly past of constant warfare. Examples of strong relationships include wonderful, favorable ones as well as extremely volatile ones. Germany and France originally had strong ties. The powerful economic bloc was formed when these two nations proposed a collaborative framework of mutual respect in the socio-economic field, and then got other countries involved, including efficient energy and resource usage. This gradually transformed into a political framework that became today’s EU. Japan and India have strong connections and are not in conflict. If Germany and France were capable of this, I think Japan and India are as well.

(M) One reason for the friendly Japanese-Indian relationship is Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, when a colored country beat a white one. This caused growing momentum towards independence in colonies across the world, including India. Japan fought to defend itself in World War II, but in the end Japan also helped achieve independence in India, as well as other Asian and African countries. The current German-French relationship is an ideal one; Germany has economic power and France has nuclear weapons. Perhaps we can think of the Japanese-Indian relationship in the same way. In any case, I am very concerned that the media and politicians have a carefree attitude despite the increasingly severe international situation facing Japan.

Hinduism and Shinto are both polytheistic religions with no sacred texts

(U) The Japanese-Indian relationship has a long history, starting with our cultural ties. Buddhism, which began in India over 1,000 years ago, came to Japan via China. Many Indian monks traveled to Japan and built temples. Indians thought of Japan as the “Country of the Sun” to the East. There are sun deities in both India and Japan, which is why Indians had special feelings about Japan. The former Indian royal family always used to send written invitations to official functions to the Japanese Emperor. Eighty percent of Indian citizens believe in Hinduism. More than a religion, it is a way of life. There are books about Hinduism, but it has no sacred texts like the Bible or Quran. This is quite similar to Japanese Shinto.

(M) England governed its colonies with a divide-and-conquer strategy. When India gained independence, that is why it was divided into Hindu and Muslim countries, the source of today’s conflict between India and Pakistan. India could have been developed as a stronger country with multiple religions, but unfortunately, this fruitless discord is unceasing. Monotheists wage cruel fights, while polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Shinto are extremely accepting of other religions. This is certainly the basis for the long-lasting, good relationship between Japan and India.

(U) Japan and India have had a natural partnership thanks to our fundamentally similar ideologies, but there were no clear themes related to the relationship. Both nations have had to rebuild – Japan when recovering from the destruction after World War II, and India after independence – so the relationship was exceedingly weak for 50 years. My major goal in coming to Japan was to discover themes for Japan and India to share. I concluded that the two countries must work to solve global challenges. Right now, the world is facing issues stemming from the limitations of past development models. In these old models, people who represented 5% of the world’s population 300 years ago exploited the remaining 95% in Africa, Asia, South America, and other regions to accumulate wealth.

(M) That’s right. The world belonged to white Christians until Japan started fighting. I think these old development concepts are particularly rooted in the Protestant faith, which encourages a strong work ethic.

(U) Japan thankfully avoided being exploited, but this was one reason for the war that followed.

(M) Firearms came to Japan in the mid-16th century, and afterwards Japan used its knowledge to establish mass-production technologies. Japan had more guns than all of Europe at the end of the 16th century. I imagine the Western powers expanded into Asia and Africa to avoid colonizing Japan, which had massive military power. Having given up on controlling Japan with military strength, the West tried ruling Japan with Christianity, but this didn’t work because of the Emperor.

(U) I agree. Five percent of the population determined all the rules. Some people must have been opposed, but there was no way for them to widely promote their views. But now things are different, and the Internet allows people across the globe to communicate at low costs. As a result, for instance, even people in Africa are now well versed in the expertise of old development models. This leads to fewer exploited people and erodes the balance, meaning old models no longer function. There are also resource issues. Resources were previously used by the 5%. Resources were unlimited, but there were limits on human ways of thinking. This balance has broken down and many people are using resources now, so we need people-focused development models that efficiently use and conserve resources and energy.

(M) I think so, too.

(U) My aim in founding the India Center Foundation was for Japan and India to collaborate on building a new development model. These two countries have similar ways of thinking about the global environment. Japan lacked resources, yet it achieved growth based on a development model of energy conservation and sustainability. The same is true in India. We announced our vision for a development model via this Japanese-Indian global partnership in 1996, and then started preparations the following year. After launching these efforts, I got a sense that Japanese people still associate India with how it was in ancient times. The best thing is to have them come see the India of today, but they won’t if they lack understanding. It’s a dilemma of what came first, the chicken or the egg? To solve this, I came up with the idea of having Japanese people watch Indian films to learn about the country while laughing and crying. Indian films have served as cultural ambassadors for the strategic Japanese-Indian relationship.

(M) India is the world’s biggest producer of movies, totaling nearly 2,000 a year. American movies earn money because they are shown all over the world, but the Indian film market profits mainly from its domestic market of 1.2 billion people. That’s quite impressive.

(U) Yes, Indian movies are known for their singing, dancing, and extremely entertaining qualities. In 1997, Indian movies became wildly popular in Japan through our efforts, which led to many more films being screened in Japan.

Mori’s great accomplishment was opening the door to India

(U) In 1998, I thought this understanding through movies would allow us to move into the next phase of creating a partnership. However, India conducted nuclear testing that year. Japan followed along with the U.S. and other countries by placing economic sanctions on India, which cooled the Japanese-Indian relationship instantly.

(M) I think India had no choice besides nuclear armament. In the postwar era, the U.S. implanted an incorrect view of national security among Japanese people. Many believe in the fantasy that peace has been maintained thanks to Article 9 of the constitution. But as I mentioned previously, in reality a balance of power is the only path to peace. I feel India had to obtain nuclear weapons to maintain a balance of power in repeated border conflicts with its neighbor China, which had become a nuclear weapons state.

(U) I think you have a correct view of the world. As you say, nuclear weapons provide significant deterrence. India has a clear way of thinking about nuclear weapons that is limited solely to peaceful usage. India opposed nuclear weapons for a long time, just like Japan. When the pacifist country of India conducted nuclear testing, it sent a powerful message to the world that it had the right to possess these weapons. That is India’s way of thinking.

(M) I see.

(U) Japan and India did not communicate much, so they couldn’t engage in frank exchanges of opinions. This resulted in Japan vehemently criticizing and placing economic sanctions on India. I thought this was an opportunity to build new Japanese-Indian ties. For roughly two years after the relationship cooled down, the India Center Foundation suggested that top-level figures in both countries speak with each other. We repeatedly explained our global partnership vision to politicians from both nations and convinced them to agree with it. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was the one who ended up translating this into action.

(M) Mori and I both come from Komatsu City in Ishikawa Prefecture. My company office used to be across from his campaign office, and I have known him since his first year as a National Diet member. Still, I have never donated to his campaign or that of any other politician. In 1988, there was an incident in which Recruit founder Hiromasa Ezoe was arrested for onerous transfers of private equity to politicians, which was seen as bribery although it was a thing everyone did. I avoid donating money to politicians because I figure if anything happens, it will prove troublesome to them. Despite this, Mori and I have been friendly for many years. He dislikes conflict and places much importance on harmony. He also devotes great efforts to foreign policy, such as visiting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

(U) I think so, too. Mori liked me very much, and I proposed that Japan and India join hands to make the world a better place. This was an opportunity to improve the Japanese-Indian relationship. Mori became prime minister in 2000 after the sudden death of Keizo Obuchi, and he came to talk with me immediately. Mori promised to visit India quickly, but the Japanese government at that time took an unyielding stance against India, such as saying the relationship could only be restored if India signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). I encouraged Mori to make efforts to relax this stance. He overcame opposition by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Liberal Democratic Party, and ended up visiting India in August 2000, amidst the economic sanctions. There, he agreed with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to build a Japanese-Indian global partnership.

(M) So you were working behind the scenes to achieve Mori’s extremely meaningful visit to India.

(U) Yes, and I think it was a major accomplishment, just like when Shigeru Yoshida opened the door to the U.S. after World War II and Kakuei Tanaka opened the door to China. Politicians are tasked with building frameworks for their nations. The new Japanese-Indian framework determined by Mori was his biggest contribution to Japan. Centered on this partnership, I hope to build an economic bloc with a new concept founded on Eastern ways of thinking in Asia.

Great expectations are directed at an industrial corridor between two cities

(M) Dark clouds are hanging over China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Borrowers are made to take out loans they cannot pay back as so-called “economic support,” and their collateral is taken when they can’t repay. Some countries are unhappy about this method and are withdrawing from the initiative. We need to restrain China’s expansion with a cooperative economic and security structure including Asia and even Russia, with Japanese-Indian collaboration at the core. China is striving in particular for marine hegemony, and it has grown so arrogant that it is reclaiming reefs near the Spratly Islands to build military bases and suggesting to the U.S. that the two countries rule the Pacific Ocean with Hawaii as the dividing line. As long as President Donald J. Trump sticks to his “America First” policy, Japan will be directly pressured by China. Japan invested huge amounts of money to build infrastructure on the Korean Peninsula before the war and in South Korea afterwards, yet North and South Korea do not positively evaluate these contributions. It is possible that North and South Korea might be integrated to form a “Korean Federation” that possesses nuclear weapons, which might press Japan for pre- and post-war reparations. Going forward, Japan must work with Asian countries to strengthen the economic area and security structure.

(U) I agree. Many Asian countries are not yet developed, which is an opportunity. Today we need to change old development models. It is difficult to destroy existing ones, but we can immediately introduce new, energy-saving, sustainable models from scratch to places with no models in place. Japan is a living laboratory of new models like the Pacific Belt from Tokyo to Hiroshima. The India Center Foundation served as an intermediary for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project that is currently underway, reflecting this model in India. The DMIC involves building a new railroad, exclusively for cargo, to enable large quantities of transport over the 1,400 kilometers between Delhi and Mumbai. Industrial development that conserves energy is also being carried out in nearby cities. Moreover, I think we can share the benefits of this development model with Africa and promote it there.

(M) Japan used to believe that China would abandon socialism and introduce democracy after it became wealthy, which is why Japan provided extensive aid. However, even though China is now affluent, wealth is concentrated among a small number of people. National systems remain unchanged, and science and technology have become means for the one-party government to control people. Instead of China, if Japan is to make similar investments, I think it will choose India, which has a similar labor force and market as China. I think Japan supporting India’s development would help transform it into a major manufacturing power, allowing us to build an economic bloc that is not dependent on China.

(U) I think we will strive for that in the future. However, manufacturing is the last thing – India is focusing on system and infrastructure building first. The DMIC is a typical example. When it is complete, an industry will be born with a scale of several hundred trillions of yen. I think Asian unity is the most important thing. Strong Japanese-Indian ties will likely be the foundation for building a good relationship with China. China’s OBOR started in 2012, while the DMIC was announced in 2006. The Japanese-Indian belt development concept is a clear influence on the OBOR.

(M) We must be wary of China’s expansion. China is certainly present in the background of the current conflict between India and Pakistan.

(U) Yes, you are right. I want Pakistan to understand that harming India will not provide any benefits, and I also want to establish a new way of thinking that says a strong India will lead to a strong Pakistan. The Japanese-Indian global partnership is essential to that end as well, and I feel that a similar framework can function in North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Perhaps this will be accomplished 10 years from now.

(M) I agree that is the ideal, but pragmatically a balance of power is the most important thing. Single countries are weak, which means alliances of democratic countries with the same values will become increasingly vital. I think the Japanese-Indian relationship will need to be enhanced in that context, and I hope you will work even harder. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(U) I hope young people will strive to contribute to the world with dreams, hope, and broad perspectives. Let’s work with the aim of bringing strength from Japan to India, and from India to Japan.

(M) The future belongs to young people, and I hope Japan and India will work together to build better societies. Thank you for joining me today.

Date of dialogue: February 28, 2019


Vibhav Kant Upadhyay
Born in Agra, India in 1969. After earning his master’s degree from the University of Allahabad’s Computer Science Department, he came to Japan and earned a master’s from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Information Science. He established the India Center Foundation in 1996.