Legend has it that in ancient times a mask made its way from India to Japan. One look at today’s Noh mask called Beshimi would confirm this legend: Its tea-colored complexion, large eyes and ample nostrils certainly make it look nothing like a Japanese, but like a native of India.

Such legends partially attest to the fact that India is the mother of Japanese culture.

Japan’s aesthetic sense may have come from Korea and China — in tea, architecture, painting and sculpture — to be refined here into something truly exquisite and unique. But all of this was based on Buddhism. Without the underpinning Buddhist philosophy from India, Japanese art and thinking would be so much ornament and decoration.

Now, it seems, Japanese-Indian relations are entering a new era. These days, the emphasis is inevitably on economic and strategic considerations. But both Japan and India, as modern Asian democracies each with a deep cultural heritage, can form a lasting and meaningful new tie on the basis of mutual respect for their cultural heritage.

Heather Timmons, writing in the New York Times on Aug. 21, interprets this link chiefly in terms of forging a counterweight to China. But if the relationship turns on such expediency, it can hardly be expected to last.

In the third week of August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a 3-day visit to India. Abe’s stated goal, as reported in the Hindustan Times, is to triple trade with India to $20 billion by 2010. According to that newspaper, the prime minister, who was leading a 200-strong delegation of Japanese business leaders, said he was “keen to ensure that India and Japan conclude a comprehensive economic partnership agreement soon to give a further push to trade and investment ties that have been growing dramatically in recent years.”

The real relationship, however, must recognize that economic progress rides on the back of culture, and not vice versa.

Praiseworthy traits and customs

There’s no need to delve into ancient history to find deep and important cultural ties between India and Japan. The Bengali poet, philosopher, artist and novelist Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) visited Japan in 1916 and found traits and customs here that he considered highly praiseworthy.

“The Japanese do not waste their energy in useless screaming and quarreling,” he wrote, “and because there is no waste of energy, it is not found wanting when required. This calmness and fortitude of body and mind is part of their national self-realization.”

These words seem just as applicable to the Japan of today as to the Japan of 90 years ago.

Radhabinod Pal (1886-1967), the sole Indian justice at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (popularly known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials), was the lone dissenter to the guilty sentences handed down to the accused. He termed the trials themselves “ritualized revenge.” That is not to say he judged the accused innocent of war crimes. He did, however, believe that such victors’ justice was invalid, and that the United States and its Western allies had had a hand in provoking Japan into war.

However, perhaps the most significant popular-culture tie in recent history was that provided by Rash Bihari Bose (1885-1945), a key figure in the movement for Indian independence from Britain. Bose found exile in Japan at the beginning of the Showa Era (1926-1989). He married Toshiko Soma, eldest daughter of the owner of Nakamuraya, a Shinjuku restaurant that is still in business today, and promptly went about making what was even then a Tokyo favorite, “curry rice,” authentic.

You might not have recognized a curry rice served in Tokyo 80 years ago, as it was made with bonito-shaving stock and soy sauce. Bose insisted on importing spices from India. He found Japanese chickens most unsatisfactory, and started up a chicken farm in Yamanashi Prefecture. Curry at Nakamuraya was called karii not karee, as it was generally referred to then. (Bose’s name for curry did not stick, however, and Japanese continue to call what is now the most popular dish with Japanese children karee raisu, though that sticky, sweet stuff is a far cry from India’s finest.)

But the influences of India in Japan go deeper than the dodgy curry concocted here. There are real affinities between the two peoples in the way they look on life and the final rite of passage.

Perhaps there is no greater illustration of these affinities than the poetry and prose of the Japanese author Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), who was an ardent follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. In fact, Miyazawa’s entire oeuvre is permeated with a philosophy of life very close to the heart of India, and it could be said that he saw his life as a medium for the propagation of his faith. Here is how he defined himself:

The phenomenon called I Is a single blue illumination Of a presupposed organic alternating current lamp . . .

The single illumination Of karma’s alternating current Remains alight without fail Flickering unceasingly, restlessly Together with the sights of the land and all else . . .

Some other part of nature

Miyazawa saw himself existing in the realm of human beings only to be transformed into some other part of nature upon his death. His final wish to his family when he died in September 1933 was to have 1,000 copies of Buddha’s “Lotus Sutra” sermon distributed to friends and acquaintances.

Many Japanese authors have been influenced by Buddhism, including, to name just three, novelists Kyoka Izumi, Ogai Mori and Yukio Mishima. But the notion of Buddhism as received by virtually all Japanese writers is one that was reworked into an aesthetic idea when it traveled through China and Korea. The trappings and descriptive elements of Buddhism are present in their works — but not the essence: that all existence is a cyclical part of nature, and that the ultimate purpose of human beings is to sacrifice themselves for the happiness of others.

I am sure that the people of India would see this part of their own tradition in the work of Kenji Miyazawa; and I would suggest that — never mind press-the-flesh prime ministerial outings — the Japanese government could do far worse than mount an exhibition of it in India.

In addition, let’s urge educational policymakers and leaders in Japan to bring hundreds of Indian teachers of English to Japan!

The Indian dialect of English is increasingly important in the world. Besides, English-language education in schools and universities is far too heavily dominated by Anglos from the United States, Britain and the Antipodes. Augmenting the Indian input to English-language learning here should be seen as a vital step in deepening ties between the subcontinent and Japan.

There’s a lot of work to be done to strengthen ties between India and Japan, and Prime Minister Abe’s excursion may have gone some way to doing so in the economic and strategic fields.

If the relationship is to flourish, however — and enrich both societies — it must reinvigorate the cultural tie. Beshimi, that mask used in Noh theater, once floated over the seas all the way to these islands. Let it be a symbol of a relationship that is, literally, made in heaven.

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