An Indian cultural festival opened Saturday at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and India, with an elephant presented by India making a public appearance.

In an address at the opening ceremony of the two-day Indian celebration, called Mela, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda described the two nations as having a long history of mutual support, especially during Japan’s postwar reconstruction.

Speaking about the decision of the late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to send Japan the elephant Indira, named after his daughter, in September 1949, Fukuda recalled how the animal provided hope to Japan at the time.

“This is something we should never forget,” he said, adding that he hopes Japan and India will continue to deepen ties and work together for peace.

Indira is remembered nostalgically by many Japanese, particularly those who grew up in the ruins of downtown Tokyo, as an animal that cheered up a physically devastated and morally dispirited postwar Japan.

Tokio Hasegawa, head of the festival’s organizing committee and director of the Mithila Museum in Niigata Prefecture, welcomed the event — an offshoot of initiatives by private groups to further relations between the two nations.

Organizers say it is the first time an event of this kind, supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Foreign Ministry, has been held.

Indian Ambassador to Japan Aftab Seth noted the significance of holding the festival at the zoo, which marked its 120th anniversary in March this year and which was Indira’s home until the elephant passed away in 1983.

It is now home to the fourth and latest elephant, 7-year-old female Surya, as well as another two elephants also given to Japan by India.

Surya, presented by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes in April last year, made a brief appearance at the opening ceremony, much to the delight of several Japanese and Indian children waving miniature flags. About 130 people attended the opening ceremony, according to organizers.

The festival — which also includes arts exhibits and dance and music performances — is the main event of a variety of grassroots projects marking the anniversary.

According to Hiroko Nagahama, stationed at the stall introducing the Japan-India Student Conference, grass-root exchanges are vital to Japan-India ties.

“It is good to have cross-cultural experiences, but ultimately I believe that it is most important to focus on finding shared commonality,” said Nagahama, founder of the conference and a Tokyo high school lecturer in Japanese calligraphy art.

Mira Mehta, an Indian cuisine researcher and vice president of the India Culture Circle, echoed hopes that events of this kind can showcase the “good parts of India” and increase the Japanese public’s knowledge of the country.

Some 50,000 people were expected to attend the event, which coincides with a weekend national holiday, organizers say.

Diplomatic ties between India and Japan were established in 1952.

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