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Last Updated: 07/01/2010
Rupakjyoti Borah

Rupak Borah traces the modern history of Indian relations with Japan, which have sometimes diverged over issues of nuclear testing and relations with China, but maintain a strong foundation of shared security and economic issues. Borah argues that Japan and India are "natural allies" in Asia, and that continued improvements in their international relationship have the potential to enhance the peace and prosperity of the entire region.

While cultural ties between Japan and India go back to the 7th century AD, when Buddhism came to Japan from India via China and Korea, direct political ties between the two countries date only to the mid-19th century. Indian culture has had a great impact on Japanese culture. The two countries have enjoyed close ties and the rise of Japan from the late 19th century onwards was a source of inspiration for the other Asian nations.

The victory of Japan over Czarist Russia in 1904 [1] gave a great impetus to nationalist movements in Asia against the colonial powers. In his autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned the impact of the news of the Japanese victory. While writing to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that “Japan’s victory was seen to be due to her adoption of new industrial methods of the West. These so-called Western ideas and methods thus became more popular all over the East.”[2]

After the end of World War II, in 1949, the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru donated two Indian elephants to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.[3] This brought a glimmer of hope into the lives of the Japanese people who still had not recovered from defeat in the war. Japan and India inked a peace treaty and established diplomatic relations in April 1952, which was one of the first peace treaties Japan signed after the World War II. [4] India's iron ore played a big role in aiding Japan’s recovery efforts. After Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi's path-breaking visit to India in 1957, the country started providing yen loans to India.


During the Second World War, Indian troops fighting under the British flag had fought Japanese troops, while some Indians under the Indian National Army fought the British with Japanese support. After the end of the war, which ended with the defeat of Japan, Justice Radha Binod Pal was the lone dissenting voice on the war crimes tribunal set up to try Japanese war criminals. India became independent and expressed its support for Japanese interests. The Indian delegation at the Far Eastern Commission was sympathetic to Japanese concerns about rebuilding their nation and to encouraging Japanese industry and finance. In 1949, the Indian delegation decided to stop pressing the question in the Commission regarding its share of reparations from Japan and proposed putting an end to reparations altogether, taking into consideration the fact that burden of making such payments told heavily on the living standards of the Japanese people. [5]

Though the Japanese public responded favourably to India’s stand, the positive perceptions of each other were not sufficient to prevent India and Japan joining the post-WWII community of nations with diametrically opposite standpoints. While non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, and recognition of China’s rightful place in the world were the lynchpins of India’s foreign policy, Japan based its position on alignment, balance of power, and the containment of China. Hence the two countries moved slowly and cautiously with respect to each other.

During this period, while India tended to dismiss Japan as a camp follower of the US, the general opinion of India in Japan was that of a chaotic, dysfunctional, desperately poor country. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru paid a visit to Japan later in the year. Following these visits, India received its first Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in 1958. With regards to border disputes between India and China and wars between India and Pakistan, Japan preferred to follow the middle path and did not take any sides. During this period, Japan became the largest bilateral donor to India. Japan’s position as India’s largest aid donor continues till date.

The 1980s marked a great advance in Indo-Japan relations. The highlight of Indo-Japanese cooperation during this phase was the joint venture between India and Japan – the Maruti-Suzuki plant to manufacture small cars in India. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone paid a visit to in 1984. This was followed in quick succession by the visits of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Japan in 1985, 1987, and 1988.


With the end of the Cold War, India began its “Look East” policy in the early 1990s and opened up its economy. The “Look-East Policy” (LEP) designed to improve its ties with the Southeast Asian and East Asian countries – ASEAN countries and beyond. Throughout the annals of its history, India has had deep cultural, economic, and political ties with the Southeast and East Asian nations. However in the years after its independence, this region was completely overlooked by India for various reasons. India supported the anti-colonial movement in Southeast Asia –the convening of the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, a special conference on Indonesia in January 1949, Chairmanship of the International Control Commission on Indo-China in 1954 and the sponsoring of the Bandung Conference –all these reflected India’s deep involvement in the freedom struggle being waged by the countries of the region. But the growing pro-Soviet tilt of India’s foreign policy drove a wedge between India and the Southeast Asian nations. However, India’s membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) afforded a greater degree of interaction between India and many countries which it had neglected in the immediate years after its independence.

When India conducted a series of nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan in May 1998, it took the world by surprise. Many countries including Japan reacted strongly to the tests. It suspended all political exchanges and even economic assistance was frozen for nearly three years. However, a turnaround in the damaged ties was achieved in August 2000, when the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori made a five-day visit to India. Mori and the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called for “global partnership,” During the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo in 2006, during the tenure of Shinzo Abe, the two Prime Ministers decided to enter into a “strategic” partnership.

An idea was mooted for a Quadrilateral Initiative (QI) involving the US, Japan, Australia, and India.[6] The Malabar Exercises involving the navies of these countries, in addition to that of Singapore, took place in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007. Things seem to be cooling off with the QI.

In recent years, Japan has been attempting to ‘normalize’ itself by playing a more active role in international affairs, including military deployment overseas, even if it is in non-combat roles. This has caused concern, however, not only domestically but also among Japan’s immediate neighbours – particularly those that bore the brunt of Japanese expansionism and colonialism. This has meant that Article 9 of the so-called Peace Constitution of Japan has come under pressure. While the Article disallows any kind of military buildup by Japan, this has been challenged almost from its inception with the creation of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1952, and the use of Japanese bases by US forces during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has deployed Japanese troops in peacekeeping operations under the UN mandate beginning with Cambodia in 1992, besides deploying them in non-combat roles in a war zone like Iraq and providing logistics support such as refueling for US-led coalition ships in the Indian Ocean.


There is speculation on whether or not China has been a factor in the emerging strategic relationship between India and Japan. Official denials notwithstanding, both countries have reasons to be concerned about the future role of China on the global scene. India’s national psyche still bears the scars of 1962, despite the efforts to normalise Sino-Indian relations since 1988. China has proliferated missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan, and continues to be a major source of weaponry for that country. Further, India is deeply troubled by China’s “string of pearls” strategy of setting up military and naval facilities in India’s vicinity, especially in Myanmar and Pakistan.[7]

Unfortunately there has not been a regular flow of people between India and Japan. Japanese came to India mainly as businessmen or tourists. However, a host of factors have led to a change in the way India and Japan perceive each other. These include factors like the slowdown of the Japanese economy, the rise of China, the growing economic and military might of India and a desire to move away from dependence on the US security umbrella.

Japan too is heavily dependent on energy supplies from the Middle East, and the safety of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) are a vital security interest. Given this scenario, Japan is in need of India’s support to keep its SLOC’s safe. Maritime cooperation is one of the most promising areas between India and Japan.

India and Japan are China’s next-door neighbours and worry that Beijing’s accumulating power could fashion a Sino-centric Asia.[8] The Chinese are concerned for they have very real fears about the US and Japan – China’s two most important neighbours. It is worth mentioning that India has clear objectives from its joint military exercises with members of the QI (Quadrilateral Initiative). China is also India’s most serious potential adversary and this is a fact that cannot be wished away.

Another area of cooperation between Japan and India is in Myanmar and Afghanistan. India has huge strategic stakes in both countries. Japan has committed considerable sums for reconstruction in Afghanistan. In Myanmar, however, it has followed a policy more independent of the US and has not imposed sanctions against the junta, preferring instead a policy of constructive engagement, including providing ODA. As in the case of India, there is here, no doubt, an element of countering China.

Japan’s primary interests lie in its immediate neighbourhood. There is scope for greater defense cooperation, intelligence-sharing and joint initiatives on maritime security, counterterrorism, disaster prevention and management and energy security.

In October 2008, [9] India and Japan signed a momentous security accord – a significant political achievement since Tokyo has concluded such an agreement with only one other country, Australia. The India-Japan security agreement also marks a significant milestone in building Asian power equilibrium. What Tokyo and New Delhi signed is a framework agreement, to be followed up with “an action plan with specific measures to advance security cooperation” in particular areas, ranging from sea-lane safety and defence collaboration to disaster management and counterterrorism. The significance of the Indo-Japanese agreement truly parallels the 2005 Indo-U.S. defence framework accord, which marked a major transformation of the strained relationship between the world’s most populous and most powerful democracies. Both those agreements focus on counterterrorism, disaster response, the safety of sea-lanes of communications, nuclear non-proliferation, bilateral and multilateral military exercises, peace operations, and defence dialogue and cooperation. But the former has not only been signed at a higher level — prime ministerial — but also comes with a key element: “policy coordination on regional affairs in the Asia-Pacific region and on long-term strategic and global issues.”

India and Japan have been conducting annual foreign office consultations at the Foreign Secretary level. The Security Dialogue between the two countries started in 2001. High level exchange is continuing between the defense authorities. From Japan, General Massaki, Chief of Staff (September, 2005), Admiral Saito, Chief of Maritime SDF (February, 2006), General Mori, Chief of Ground SDF (March, 2006), and General Yoshida, Chief of Air SDF (April, 2006) visited India. From India, Admiral Prakash, Chief of Naval Staff, visited Japan in October, 2005. Defense Minister of India, Mr. Mukherjee, visited Japan in May, 2006, and Joint Statement was issued to promote defense exchanges. In September, 2007, Maritime SDF joined in the "Malabar 07-2" which was hosted by India.

Between the coast guards, combined exercises on anti-piracy, and search and rescue operation s have been conducted every year since 2000. Heads of the coast guards of both countries visit each other almost every year. The two coast guards exchanged a Memorandum on Cooperation at the occasion of commandant Ishikawa's visit to India in November 2006. The two countries have instituted multiple strategic dialogues involving their Foreign and Defence Ministers and national security advisers, as well as “service-to-service exchanges including bilateral and multilateral exercises.” The Indian and Japanese space agencies are also cooperating as part of capacity-building efforts in disaster management.

One of the factors which has led to improved ties between India and Japan is the growing ties between India and the United States. Japan has long been a very close US ally. The Indian Navy, in the post 9/11 period, has participated in escort and joint patrolling activities in the Andaman Sea region. It has escorted US ships carrying supplies to Afghanistan for counter-terrorism efforts. India has collaborated with countries like Indonesia in conducting joint patrolling in the Malacca Straits. The events of September 11th 2001 is one factor which has brought the United States, Japan and India closer, since all of them have a shared interest in fighting global terrorism. The American decision to lift the nuclear sanctions against India in the post-Pokhran II period and the emerging regional scenario after September 11 has helped to cement a “natural alliance” between India and the United States. India and the United States have recognized the prospects for cooperation between them in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indian Ocean region and its periphery.

India’s Andaman and Nicobar group of islands lie close to the restive Indonesian province of Aceh. The southernmost of India’s Andaman and Nicobar group of islands is barely 90 nautical miles from Indonesia’s Aceh province. India's decision to go ahead with a tri-service Far Eastern Strategic Command at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands gives it tremendous leverage over the sea lanes heading towards the Strait of Malacca, the gateway to Southeast Asia.

Manmohan Singh paid an official visit to Japan in 2006. Dr. Singh and then Japanese PM Shinzo Abe affirmed that Japan and India are natural partners as the largest and most developed democracies of Asia, with a mutual stake in each other's progress and prosperity. Indeed, a strong, prosperous and dynamic India is in the interest of Japan, and likewise, a strong, prosperous and dynamic Japan is in the interest of India. Recognising that Asia is emerging as the leading growth centre of an increasingly interdependent global economy, the two countries indicated their desire to pursue a comprehensive economic partnership in the region and nurture sustainable economic growth, social peace, and political tolerance in open and cooperative regional frameworks. [10] During Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Japan in October 2008, Japan and India signed the "Joint Statement on the Advancement of the Strategic and Global Partnership between Japan and India", [11] which promotes cooperation in a wide range of fields, and the "Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India", which relates to security cooperation between the two countries.


Japan's new centre-left Prime Minister Naoto Kan has a big task on his shoulders, having vowed to create a "vigorous country", restore its public finances, and mend strained ties with the United States. He took over from his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama who stepped down following disagreements over the shifting of an American airbase in Japan.

Japan and India indeed are natural allies with no negative historical legacy and no conflict of strategic interest. It is the mutual interests of both these countries to seize the initiative and take the relationship to the next level.

[1] Rajamohan, P.G, Rahut, Dil Bahadur, Jacob, Jabin (2008), Changing Paradigm of Indo-Japan relations, ICRIER, New Delhi

[2] Nehru, Jawaharlal (1934), “Letter No. 117,” Glimpses of World History, Vol. 2, Allahabad, Kitabistan, pp. 726-7.

[3] Nayar, Mandira (2007), India, Japan and world peace at

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (2009), Japan-India Relations at accessed on 23 Sep, 2009

[5] Murthy, Narasimha PA (1986), India and Japan: Dimensions of their Relations, ABC Publishing House, New Delhi.

[6] New 'strategic partnership' against China,

[7] Bajpai, K. and A. Mattoo, (eds.). 2000. The Peacock and the Dragon. India-China Relations in the 21st Century. New Delhi: Har-Anand.

[8] Chellaney, Brahma (2006), Asian Juggernaut : The Rise of China, India and Japan, Harper Collins Publishers.

[9] Chellaney, Brahma (2008), Toward Asian power equilibrium, The Hindu, Nov 01, 2008

[10] Joint Statement Towards Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership at

[11] See Joint Statement on the Advancement of the Strategic and Global Partnership between Japan and India, at

Rupakjyoti Borah is a PhD student in the school of international studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.