India and Japan have very deep cultural similarities. At the root is Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the Japanese and also the family values that both Japanese and Indians have. One could argue that India has not been a Buddhist country for several centuries. However, the underlying value system is very much the same.
Spirituality, meditation, concept of dharma/dhamma or the right path, no single god or even the very existence of god is not being central to religion are some of the shared values. Besides the underlying value system, even the external forms of religion, the rituals, are very similar. Some similar rituals that I saw in the one hour I spent at Senshoji temple at Asakusa, Tokyo were: bringing the two palms together to give respect, use of holy ash (bhabhut) and directing the smoke towards one's body to sanctify it (similar to arti) and offering of coins at the altar.
To be honest, this similarity is even deeper if I compare Japan and Bihar, the region where Buddha attained his enlightenment and spent most of his enlightened period preaching Buddhism. Respect for knowledge; respect for teacher; highest premium for family honour and respect; a non confrontationist attitude that works on consensus while honouring the elders by giving them the right to take the final call; and deepest consideration for the weakest and the meekest putting extra effort taken to pull them along so that they don't get left behind are some of the aspects of behaviour which are very similar and bind us together.
Language and Legends
Japan being a Buddhist country has a lot of stories related to Buddha's life and teachings. Along with it came influences of language and words. It could be a matter of research for our social scientist and academicians to relate the locations mentioned in these Buddhist legends to places in modern Bihar and Eastern UP.
A Japanese acquaintance mentioned to me the name of Oshaka, the emperor. When I narrated the story of Emperor Ashok's kalinga war and his subsequent change of heart, it seemed to strike a chord with him. Some social researcher needs to do deep dive to find out if indeed Emperor Oshaka of Japanese legend and Emperor Ashok Priyadarshi (Asok Piyadassi in Pali) are one and the same.
Though Japanese as a language is supposed to have developed independently unrelated to other family of languages; there are similarities in words as well. A contemporary word is Cha for Japanese tea. The way it is pronounced is closer to the Bihari Chah (the last 'h' in Chah is very soft) than Chai (with a harsh ya) of standard Hindi. This similarity is probably a recent thing from the British period. But a Japanese word I found accidentally is Naraka which means the same as the Sanskrit word Nark. Some studies have been done by scholars trying to find the similarity between Sanskrit and Japanese. (link)
My feeling is that if research is done for similarity between Japanese and Pali, the language of the common man during Buddha's time, even more striking results would be found.
Status of Women
Another curious aspect is the status of women. For a superficial person, women have low status is both Japan as well as in Bihar. Women are essentially the care giver for the family. They work much harder than the male folks who don't contribute much to the household chores. Women stay in background. They sacrifice their careers and their ambition at the altar of family considerations. Indeed, these put the women at a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis men in both the societies.
However, there is a parallel reality. In many ways, women are the real power behind the power in both the societies. They are the emotional foundations which keep the men-folks strong. They can influence their father, spouse and sons as few can. They have their full say in all matters related to family decisions. They have the right to veto all major decisions which they do not hesitate to exercise from time to time.
In Chhapra, a district of Bihar, males, when pressed to give their decision in important matters, often say that "Abhi angna se puchal baachal baa" or "I haven't consulted the inner-courtyard - the place in the house where women-folk spend their time".
Chhapra is in the Bhojpuri sub cultural region of Bihar which is quite male dominant. If one goes to Mithilanchal and Vajj, this women power is even stronger. These cultural sub regions give highest primacy to goddess Sita, being her birthplace. This apparent contradiction of women power could be described as the power of two drops of saline water - tears. I got a sense that this power is as strong in Japan as in Bihar.
Add to this the similarity in food habits. The way rice is eaten in Japan is very similar to the way Bihari 'mad gilla bhaat' is prepared. The stickiness of cooked rice is considered a premium attribute as distinct from the separate grains feature of rice otherwise considered premium in India.
Tempura is a Japanese delicacy that I had the opportunity to savour at one of the good Japanese restaurant. The dish itself is vegetarian but is normally dipped in fish flavoured spices. The restaurant was kind enough to accommodate my vegetarianism and served us vegetarian dips. And let me tell you, Tempura was exactly like Bihari 'bajka' or 'Taruan'. The vegetables were exactly the same: eggplant and leaves of different vegetables.
Wasabi is a Japanese delicacy which is probably the most popular. This was so very similar to our mustard based spices that I found it unreal. Its strong flavour irritated my nostrils exactly like the 'jhans' of unrefined mustard and I loved every moment of it. And their most popular drink is Sake, a drink made by fermenting rice and known for its strong alcoholic content, just like Bihari 'handia'. Of course I can't vouch for the last since I have never had the occasion to drink either 'handia' or 'Sake'.
The BIG Difference
With all the similarities, there is one big characteristic which is different between Japanese and Indians. This one big thing that the Japanese have and Indians in general and Biharis in particular don't have is Discipline. Perhaps this is the single biggest difference between them and us which keeps them rich and keeps us poor.
So my equation is Bihari + Discipline = Japanese
Those inclined to demean Bihar could give it a negative spin and change the equation to
Japanese - Discipline = Bihari.
My own belief is that if we correct indiscipline and lack of self belief in a Bihari, he is very, very close to Japanese. On the positive side, our shared cultural ethos tempered with Indian creativity and Japanese discipline together can go places.
Where does it point to in the modern context?
Bihar can get a huge leg up by making it convenient for the Japanese tourist to visit Buddhist holy places. Places like Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Rajgriha, Vulture peak, Vaishali, if made accessible, will open up huge tourist potential.
To be sure, it is a daunting task. The extent of the infrastructure challenge in this can be gauged by the fact that there is no airport in Bihar which can handle direct flights from Japan. Buddhism related sites are spread on both sides of Ganges. And for 445 km of Ganga in Bihar, it has a grand total of just three and a half bridges. A Japani is not going to waste two days landing at Delhi and then travel to Bodh Gaya.
The hotel infrastructure in the Buddhist circuit is extremely weak. Existing Japanese hotel in the Buddhist circuit is from the chain Hokke Hotel, a chain considered mid segment at best. The brand conscious Japani who is high end is not going to consider visiting this place if he has to stay in such accommodation.
If this can be coupled with recreation: Golf, fishing in Ganga, bird watching at the bird sanctuary near Barh, watching fresh water dolphin (sauns) at Patna, indeed luxury ferries on Ganga, this will be a killer tourist circuit which has the potential to beat the golden triangle of Delhi - Jaipur - Agra.
Next in importance would be handicrafts. The famous Bhagalpur silk can be a huge draw with the Japanese. I was wearing a traditional tassar (raw silk) 'bandi' in one of the evening parties. It got me huge attention. Other popular handicrafts that could be huge draw are Buddha statues in the black stone of Biharsharif and Buddha related hand paintings in Madhubani and Sujuni style using natural colors.
Third would be low end electronic manufacturing. The huge masses in Bihar can do far better value add if they do even the lowest of the low end electronic manufacturing for the Japanese firms rather than the back breaking labour in the farms of Punjab. This will require investment in infrastructure like roads from a port in Orissa and good airport for Patna. But these would pay for themselves extremely fast.
Fourth would be studies in social sciences. There can be huge co operation in study of history, culture, Buddhism, ancient medicine and so on.
Things that Can Go Wrong
However, there is plenty that can go wrong. To begin with, some Nehru era thinking which basically looks upon Bihar as a colony meant to supply cheap manpower and raw material can appropriate this power and be put in charge of this. Such thinking which is unable or unwilling to come out of 'salve of British' mentality is fundamentally unsuitable to comprehend that Bihar can be a cherished tourist location. It can't understand the deep shared values between the heart of India (Bihar) and the Buddhists. His plan of tourism to Bodh Gaya will be via Delhi through a rickety train rather than a modern airport at Patna which can take the tourists quickly, cheaply and efficiently to their places of interest. His supply chain for the electronic manufacturing will be via a port in Western India hauled over long distance by trains making it infeasible. He won't have the intellect to understand the advantage of direct access through a port in Orissa, for example.
Such thinking and such people have already demonstrated their warped thinking in the fifties when they created policies like freight equalisation which made the poorest region of the country pay for the prosperity of the more developed region and are very capable of repeating such folly again. Some of them are trying to do exactly this right now with the visionary Nalanda University revival project conceived by our respected former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. They have started the revival of Nalanda University in a government building in Delhi rather than at Nalanda! And the VC of this university can't travel to Nalanda because the toilets there aren't clean enough.
My next apprehension is that we Indians start to take for granted the inevitability of the success of such partnership and pretty soon it degenerates. That is precisely how India managed to slow down its growth in the last ten years. There is nothing inevitable about it if it is not backed by solid execution. Let us make no mistake; it will take a lot of sweat and toil to make it happen. I can see Japanese contributing their bit in their era of 'Abenomics' but we Indians, aided by our slothful bureaucracy and a highly misplaced sense of superiority, can very easily blowup this historic opportunity.
T. V. Sinha, Guest Contributor, PatnaDaily.Com