Nepali Times
State Of The State
Do we speak the same language?


He came, he saw, he smiled. He even danced a few steps at Patan Durbar Square. And by evening he was off again. The short stopover in Kathmandu by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori last week at the tail end of his South Asian tour left his hosts in the Himalayan kingdom gasping for breath.

Our leaders paid effusive verbal tributes to Nepal's \'largest donor'. Newspaper columnists celebrated commonalties like Nepal and Japan both having kite-flying contests. The name of Lord Buddha was solemnly invoked. Ekai Kawaguchi, the Japanese monk who had stopped by on his way to Tibet about a century ago (see facing page), was fondly remembered. It was clich? time, the first-ever visit of a Japanese Prime Minister to the Kingdom of Nepal. And an opportunity to establish a more enduring basis of mutual relationship was squandered.

Japan and Nepal do not speak the same language. English is the mother tongue in neither country. And yet, we made elaborate banners welcoming the Japanese prime minister in a language that most people in neither country speak. The banners were a symbolic reminder of our lack of imagination, the inappropriateness of our actions, and the fact that we do not speak the same language.

A sizeable and influential section of Japanese population is non-Buddhist. There are Shinto people, like Mori himself, who have no particular attachment to Lumbini other than the fact that it is a World Heritage Site. In Shinto ideology, as Mori told a group of his supporters recently, it is Japan that is the "divine country". And yet we tirelessly try to rub it in and get the Japanese to do double flips for Lumbini.

Buddhism came to Japan from China in the sixth century AD. It is a painful reminder of the first cultural invasion of Japan from the mainland in historical times. In any case, international relations are seldom governed by the soft spot a country may have for another country's religious persuasion. If that were the case, saffron Bharat would have been daju-bhai with the world's only Hindu kingdom by now.

Nepali officials also thought they were being gratefully polite by praising Japan for all the aid money it has poured into Nepal. Many Japanese find such genuflection quite embarrassing. It makes them at least partially responsible for the mess that we have made of foreign aid over the last 40 years.

Besides, many Nepal experts from Japan know just how much more the Japanese corporate houses, the zaibatsu, have benefitted from the "aid" to Nepal. Charity has its rewards, but no sensible person or nation wants to be seen as a permanent patron of a beggar with a bottomless bowl.

Aside from the ugliness of seeing our leaders grovelling for more, which is quite revolting in itself, the lack of selfesteem that this implied would have been an insult to any self-respecting nation. But not to us, somehow our
sense of self-worth has taken such a beating that we don't see the irony of it all. It is time we rethought the strategy of Nepal-Japan relations in order to meet the challenges of changing times.

In the coming days, Nepal will continue to be important for Japan. However, it will not be so because of Lord Buddha, god-incarnates, Kawaguchi, or kiteflying. Nepal's location holds strategic importance for Japan. China is most likely to emerge as the challenger to Japanese economic dominance in Asia. India will probably become the single largest market for consumer goods in this region. Any ambitious power, and Japan is certainly one despite its loud disclaimers, would love to have a convenient watch-post here. East of Nepal, the Japanese are still barely tolerated. Painful memories of the Second World War are still fresh. Nepal, despite Gurkha action against the Japanese in Burma and Malaya during the War, has no such historical baggage.

In economic terms, there is pressing need to shift emphasis from aid to trade. Japanese expatriates in South Asia feast on Japanese rice grown in Nepal. There is scope for further growth in this trade. It could have been either some itinerant Buddhists monk or the Nepali students who went to Japan in 1902 for further studies who brought back chrysanthemum seeds to Nepal. Today it grows wild in the vicinity of Kathmandu Valley. Considering that it's one of the holiest flowers in Japan, where the imperial throne itself is named after it (and seeing how well the flower grows here) there must be a possibility of a bountiful flower trade.

Along with his ceremonial threeminute address to the millennium meet of the UN General Assembly, the second most important engagement for Prime Minister Girija Koirala in New York is to attend a reception hosted by Mori. On neutral turf, it is possible that the two prime ministers will be less ceremonial and more informal. Nepal can support Japanese aspirations at the UN, but we should be assured of their assistance in learning to bake our own bread rather than be content with the loaves thrown at us in the name of aid.

One of the things they need to discuss is ways to increase the number of Nepalis who speak and write Japanese. Or getting more Japanese to learn Nepali. Learning each other's language is perhaps the best way of starting to speak the same language over issues like trade and cooperation. And next time, let's have the banners in Japanese.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)