Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, in a rare overseas trip, are scheduled to begin a tour of the Indian cities of New Delhi and Chennai on November 30. The imperial couple’s weeklong visit is likely to mark a defining moment in Indo-Japanese relations, fostering closer economic and security ties between Asia’s two leading democracies as they seek a pluralistic, stable Asian order.
Traditionally, a visit from the Japanese emperor – except for a coronation or royal anniversary celebration – signified a turning point in a bilateral relationship. While the emperor is merely the “symbol of the state” under Japan’s US-imposed postwar constitution, he retains significant influence, owing to Japanese veneration of the imperial dynasty – the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, the origins of which can be traced to 660 BC. Indeed, the emperor’s overseas visits remain deeply political, setting the tone – if not the agenda – for Japan’s foreign policy.
Consider Akihito’s 1992 visit to China – the first such visit by any Japanese emperor. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s government – grateful for Japan’s reluctance to maintain punitive sanctions over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and eager for international recognition, not to mention Japanese capital and commercial technologies – had extended seven invitations over two years.
Akihito’s trip, which came at the height of Japan’s pro-China foreign policy, was followed by increased Japanese aid, investment, and technology transfer, thereby cementing Japan’s role in China’s economic rise. The improved diplomatic relationship lasted until the recent flare-up of territorial and other bilateral disputes.
Although no Japanese emperor has visited India before, the bilateral relationship runs deep. In traditional Japanese culture, India is Tenjiku (the country of heaven). Today, Japan is India’s largest source of aid and has secured a key role in supporting infrastructure development, financing projects like the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project.
With these natural allies seeking to add strategic bulk to their rapidly multiplying ties, Akihito’s tour is the most significant visit to India by any foreign leader in recent years. Indeed, it is expected to be one of the last foreign trips for the 79-year-old emperor, who has undergone several major surgeries in the past decade.
Akihito’s travel schedule contrasts sharply with that of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Despite having had open-heart surgery during his first term, India’s 81-year-old leader has sought to offset his low domestic political stock by flying more than one million kilometers on overseas trips – including visits to Japan, China, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, and the United States in the last six months alone.
The paradox of Akihito’s tour – for which Singh has appointed a special envoy with ministerial rank to oversee preparations – is that Japan is investing substantial political capital to build a strong, long-term partnership with India’s government at a time when India is gripped by policy paralysis. Japan’s leaders are perhaps counting on the continuity of India’s strategic policies, which would require the Indian government that emerges from next year’s general election to sustain the momentum of cooperation.
But, more important, Japan is adjusting to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing regional environment, characterized by rising geopolitical competition with China. In a historical reversal, Japan has found itself on the defensive against the increasingly muscular foreign policy of its former colony and old rival.
This situation is forcing the Japanese government to reconsider its postwar pacifism, revise its defense strategy, and increase its military spending. In this context, Japan knows that a deeper strategic collaboration with India – which is also seeking to blunt increasing military pressure from China – is its best move.
In modern history, Japan has had the distinction of consistently staying ahead of the rest of Asia. During the Meiji era, in the second half of the nineteenth century, it became the first Asian country to modernize. It was also the first Asian country to emerge as a world power, defeating Manchu-ruled China and Czarist Russia in separate wars. And after its defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes to become Asia’s first global economic powerhouse.
With per capita GDP of more than $37,000, Japan still ranks among the world’s richest countries, specializing in the highest-value links of global supply chains. And income inequality in Japan ranks among the lowest in Asia.
Nonetheless, almost two decades of economic stagnation have eroded Japan’s regional clout. This raises the question of whether Japan’s current problems –sluggish growth, high public debt, and rapid population aging – presage a similar trend across East Asia. Similar problems are already appearing in South Korea, while China has been driven to loosen its one-child policy and unveil plans for economic reforms aimed at reviving growth.
For India, Japan is indispensable as both an economic and a security partner. It is central to India’s “Look East” policy, which has evolved into more of an “Act East” policy, whereby the original strategy’s economic logic has been amplified by the larger geopolitical objective of ensuring Asian stability and a regional balance of power. It is in this light that Akihito’s historic visit should be viewed.