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My Japanese parents

By Vijay Prashad

31 May 2013

Remembering what Japan meant to those who dreamt of transforming India after Independence.
Nehru and parts of his cabinet at Sindri, March 1952. Photos / Pran Prashad

Nehru and parts of his cabinet at Sindri, March 1952.
Photos / Pran Prashad

In 1952, my parents, Pran and Soni Prashad, left Calcutta, India for Japan. They had been married for four years, and two children had already been born to them; two more would come later. Both my parents lost out on higher education – my father because his studies were interrupted by World War II, and my mother because she was married at 18. My father went to work at the Calcutta docks for a large British-Indian firm, Bird & Company. In the years after Indian Independence, my father’s rise in the company was assured. He was a large personality who impressed people easily and whose ambitions were in line with what old firms in new countries needed. My mother supported those ambitions effortlessly, and with good humour. Their trip to Japan marked them, my father especially. Afterwards, his entire approach to life seemed driven by the desire to turn India into Japan.

Bird & Company had extensive interests in eastern India, from coalmines in Bihar to jute factories in the industrial belt that went up the Hooghly River north of Calcutta. From its offices in Dalhousie Square (today Kolkata’s B B D Bagh) to its mode of operations, Bird & Company seemed to have resisted eviction from the 19th century. But my father was not a man who liked to look backward, and he was not particularly impressed by the traditions of the old English ‘box-wallah’ firms. He looked elsewhere for the future.

When I was a little boy, years later, my father would tell me about Japan. His hands, with a cigarette lodged between the fingers, would dance around his head as he sketched out the remarkable history of that small island nation. The story always began with the ships of US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry breaching Japanese pride and protection to enter Tokyo harbour in 1853, engendering the crisis that would become the Meiji Restoration and setting Japan on a course not only of national discovery and modernisation but also, crucially, of industrial growth. Near at hand on my father’s table was Alfred Toynbee’s A Study of History, one of the touchstones of his self-education, where Toynbee wrote that the Samurai who ruled Japan at the time of Perry’s arrival were Japan’s creative minority, fighting for four centuries to “redeem their past” by trying to convert “feudal anarchy into feudal order.” During the Meiji Restoration, the Samurai performed the highest kind of “self-abnegation by giving up their privileges to help the country modernise fast.”

The writer’s mother in a kimono, with her Japanese friend in a sari, Japan, 1952.

The writer’s mother in a kimono, with her Japanese friend in a sari, Japan, 1952.

We Prashads and Pasrichas did not come from feudal stock. My ancestors drew their incomes from government salaries, mainly as writers and petty administrators in Lahore and Peshawar (except for one with mysterious roots in Burma). My father was frustrated by the privileges of the Indian Samurai – the aristocracy and their coterie, with their corruption and their chamchas [bootlickers]. He wanted to see more self-abnegation and less involution of wealth and desiccation of talent.

Both my parents were enthused by the new Indian nation, with its promises to build temples of industry and create a meritocratic society. The Japanese model governed their thoughts. Japan had, to their minds, erased its hierarchical past and taken to industry with ease. Along that trajectory, the Japanese were able to defeat the Russians in the war of 1904-05, the first Asians to win a modern military engagement against a European power. Of course, it was also out of that same trajectory that Japanese militarism metastasised into its imperial depredations in eastern Asia. Was it the hasty demise of its old ways that led Japan to mimic the wars of other technological societies? That was one topic of frequent afternoon discussions between me and my father.

In March 1952, my parents went to the industrial township of Sindri, now in Jharkhand, to watch Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurate a fertiliser factory. It was there that Nehru first spoke of factories and dams as “temples of modern India.” The talisman of the Sindri era was Nehru’s formula for the new nation state: “The test of real strength is how much steel you produce, how much power you produce and use.” In Nehru, my father saw the Indian Samurai willing to throw away feudal privileges to create the steel frame of modernity. That Nehru was unwilling to conduct large-scale land reforms – an essential element of Japan’s post-World War II development – did not irk my father; he was too much of an iron and steel man to pay attention to the countryside.A month after Sindri, US troops left Japan and India signed a peace agreement with the country to restore relations severed by the advent of the Second World War. By the end of 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco formally ended the US’s seven-year occupation of Japan. It was in this context that Indian firms sought new commercial agreements with Japan’s hastily expanding industrial sector. Japan’s ‘develop and import’ policy required massive amounts of raw materials, particularly for its heavy industry. Within the Commonwealth, the United Kingdom and Australia urged caution in relations with Japan, which they warned would soon become the “workshop of the world” and compete with their own circumscribed ambitions.

No such caution was prescribed for Japan-India relations. The Indian government’s agencies encouraged domestic industries to extend themselves into the Japanese market. As part of this, my father’s firm and the Indian Mining Association (IMA) sent him to Japan in 1952 to make contacts for his company and secure contracts for the sale of Bihari coal and iron ore extracted by members of the IMA. This was the start of an enduring commercial relationship between India and Japan, one that was hampered slightly after the late 1960s, when highly developed Australian mining companies also entered the fray after that country abandoned its earlier political reticence. Though keen to compete, India struggled against infrastructural drawbacks, mainly in transportation. In a speech as head of the IMA in 1962, my father put it plainly: “You say send more coal; I say send more wagons.”

A month after Sindri, US troops left Japan and India signed a peace agreement with the country to restore relations severed by the advent of the Second World War. By the end of 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco formally ended the US’s seven-year occupation of Japan. It was in this context that Indian firms sought new commercial agreements with Japan’s hastily expanding industrial sector. Japan’s ‘develop and import’ policy required massive amounts of raw materials, particularly for its heavy industry. Within the Commonwealth, the United Kingdom and Australia urged caution in relations with Japan, which they warned would soon become the “workshop of the world” and compete with their own circumscribed ambitions.

The writer’s parents on a Japanese street, 1952.

The writer’s parents on a Japanese street, 1952.

No such caution was prescribed for Japan-India relations. The Indian government’s agencies encouraged domestic industries to extend themselves into the Japanese market. As part of this, my father’s firm and the Indian Mining Association (IMA) sent him to Japan in 1952 to make contacts for his company and secure contracts for the sale of Bihari coal and iron ore extracted by members of the IMA. This was the start of an enduring commercial relationship between India and Japan, one that was hampered slightly after the late 1960s, when highly developed Australian mining companies also entered the fray after that country abandoned its earlier political reticence. Though keen to compete, India struggled against infrastructural drawbacks, mainly in transportation. In a speech as head of the IMA in 1962, my father put it plainly: “You say send more coal; I say send more wagons.”

Another India
Years later, sitting in our Calcutta apartment a few years before he died in 1999, my father regretted India’s failure to take the Japanese road. “If Nehru had broken the back of superstition and tradition, knocked some sense into the Hindu vested interests, and if he had allowed talent and merit to thrive rather than the aristocrats of the past, India would have been unstoppable.” I wrote these sentences down in my notebook, and held onto them. It seemed a plainspoken manifesto – promote science, promote merit. One of the books my father often took from his shelves was a yellowed and drab copy of M Visvesvaraya’s Reconstructing India (1920), where the pioneer of planned development for India had outlined the basic approach encapsulated in his adage, ‘Industrialise or Perish!’ Visvesvaraya, a courtier-engineer of the Mysore royals, had visited Japan in 1898 and been struck by the importance of education (including vocational education) and of state-driven or dirigiste industrial development. His views, the dirigiste approach of the Bombay Plan of 1944, and the views of my father reflected the thoughts of many intellectuals among the new nation’s new managerial elite.

When my parents got to Japan in mid-1952, they travelled in the countryside, where the enforced land reform had taken its toll but had also set Japanese agriculture on the path to modern production. Remnants of the war’s physical destruction were still evident, but the industrial sector had already recovered its self-confidence; the major zaibatsu firms were booming, ravenous for raw materials and eager for new markets. My father would later remember this, and recall how the Japanese had little time to talk about the horrors of war or who did what to whom. They seemed in a hurry. Friendships came easily for my parents, as did admiration for what Japan had accomplished in less than a decade since being twice struck by atomic bombs and having its capital city carpet-bombed. Of course some people struggled to come to terms with the rapid changes, as Yasujiro Ozu showed in his films Early Spring (1956) and Equinox Flower (1958), both dealing with white-collar workers’ unease with being ‘organisation men’. I have a vision of my parents walking into the scenes of those movies, perhaps trying to cheer up the characters by comparing their predicament to what my father saw as India’s overly stagnant economic development.

In later years, our home in Calcutta bore the marks of this encounter. My mother took to bonsai during the trip, and the bric-à-brac of Japanese culture found its way into our apartment. Japanese domestic culture – the small trees and gently sculpted rock gardens, the tenderness of chopsticks on a holder beside a steaming lacquered bowl of broth – always seemed at odds with the country’s industrial image. “Life in Japan,” wrote Budapest-Born author Arthur Koestler in his otherwise absurd The Lotus and the Robot (1960), “may be compared to a scented bath which gives you electric shocks at unexpected moments.” The serenity of the bath, Koestler did not seem to register, resulted from the availability of running water and electricity – things not easily available to most people in India at that time, or even now. Japanese aesthetics had very old roots, but they were now also rooted in modern infrastructure.

The writer’s parents in their kimonos, Japan, 1952.

The writer’s parents in their kimonos, Japan, 1952.

When I drifted into left-wing politics, I was bewildered by the ‘Japanese Road’ – the ‘flying geese’ model of an industrialised country showing the way forward for developing economies , the zaibatsu culture, and of course the subordination to the United States. My father and I would sit in his room, surrounded by the books mentioned above, arguing about the merits of this road or that, about the merits of this kind of development over that one. The rise of Hindutva fascism in India (1984-1992) and corruption scandals such as the Bofors kickbacks case (1987-1992) swirled around our debates, and provided points of agreement. Neither of us liked Hindutva or corporate corruption. As India moved toward economic liberalisation, my father worried that if rooted in a corrupt aristocratic capitalism, neo-liberalism would not foster the kind of meritocratic society he wanted to see. Here too we agreed.

Between the moments spent on common ground, debates erupted about the Japanese Road and Communism. We each had weaknesses in our arguments – the Soviet Union had begun its collapse, and Japan’s economy had drifted into the doldrums. It didn’t stop us. If my father were alive today, I think he’d have taken to China with the same enthusiasm he reserved for Japan, seeing another Asian giant with pretentions to solve social misery. We’d argue till the light began to fade, and then reach for our cups of tea, seething over this point or that, forgetting to revel in all that we shared, not just certain ideas, but the passion for intellectual discussion and questions of social development.

A few years before my parents arrived in Japan, Nehru, in a flash of old pan-Asianism, presented an elephant to the Tokyo zoo, which had been bombed flat during the war and lost all its animals. Nehru named the elephant Indira, after his daughter. It was a joke with my father that the elephant, which died in the late 1980s, had been named after his bête noire: Indira Gandhi. On the surface the elephant seems slow and unintelligent, but in action it is neither. So much like Mrs Gandhi, and so much, in a way, like India.

~ Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (London:Verso; New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2013).

One Response to “My Japanese parents”

  1. Shrinivasrao S. Sohoni says:

    Sensitively and beautifully written; a personal reminiscence and a historical cameo.

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