How Modi set cultural context for improving business relations between India and Japan

By Somali K Chakrabarti


Globalization means we have to re-examine some of our ideas, and look at ideas from other countries, from other cultures, and open ourselves to them. And that’s not comfortable for the average person. ~ Herbie Hancock

Culture, invariably, has an immense influence on the global business environment.

Customs, values, attitude towards work and what people consider as ethical in business vary from country to country. Besides the differences in policy or regulatory environment, differences that stem from different cultural backgrounds have often been known to create hurdles in the international business. Cultural barriers can stymie or delay business deals. On a number of occasions, business negotiations between multinationals have failed due to cultural differences.

So, it makes a lot of sense to set the cultural context for minimizing or dissolving the cultural barriers before talking business.

“Cultural barriers can be overcome relatively swiftly where there is the political will to do so.”

~ Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

This is primarily what India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has established during his trip to Japan, thus setting a brilliant example of how political leaders can create the required cultural context to pave the way for commerce to follow.

Four aspects that PM Modi put emphasis on for creating the cultural milieu for strengthening bilateral relations between India and Japan are:


  1. Stressing on commonalities between the two cultures

Stressing on cultural commonality can create acceptance, breed tolerance towards cultural differences and accelerate the discovery of complementarities.

If you take mythologies from different cultures, the names may change and the story lines may vary but there is always something in common. ~Maynard James Keenan

The past cultural connection between India and Japan has provided a basis for commonality

Swami Vivekananda in Japan

PM Narendra Modi presented a book on Swami Vivekananda to the Japanese PM Shinjo Abe, with excerpts from the life and works of Swami Vivekananda and his visit to Japan.

Swami Vivekananda had visited Japan on his way to The World Parliament of the Religions held at Chicago in 1893 and spent a short period in Japan. He first reached the port city of Nagasaki and then visited Kobe,Yokohama and the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. He was impressed by cleanliness of their streets and houses, movements, manners and gestures, which he found to be ‘picturesque’.  Swami Vivekananda had also guided Tenshin Okakura, whose philosophy influenced shaping of early modern Japan.

The cultural interactions that had transpired between great minds of the two countries in the past where further highlighted during Narendra Modi’s meeting with Saichiro Misumi, the 99-year-old Japanese associate of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in Tokyo.


Prayer for peace

‘Buddhism’ was the next common factor.

Narendra Modi visited and offered prayers in two ancient Buddhist temples Toji and Kinkakuji in Japan. Toji temple, in Kyoto is inspired by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh of Hindu philosophy. As India is the country of origin of Buddhism, the temples are a manifestation of a shared cultural heritage in the ancient past. Modi urged that the two countries must show the way of the Buddha to the world.


The other common connecting factor was ‘tea’.

The Japanese tea ceremony that involves ceremonial preparation and serving ‘matcha’ (Japanese green tea) to the guests is as much about aesthetics and cultural experience as it is about drinking tea.

When Japanese PM Shinjo Abe hosted a tea ceremony for Modi, it found some resonance with Modi’s ‘Chai pe Charcha’ that was a forum to share issues, ask questions and suggest solutions over a cup of tea.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony served as a converging ground for discussing collaboration options as the two leaders connected over a cup of tea in the traditional Japanese manner.


  1. Demonstrating openness towards the Japanese culture

Narendra Modi participated with Shinjo Abe in ‘feeding the fish’, which is considered as an auspicious Japanese ritual. He tweeted in Japanese language to strike a chord with the Japanese people and mingled around with the people. Modi even played the drum with Japanese ceremonial drummers, at the inauguration of the TCS Japan Technology and Cultural Academy, in Tokyo.

Participation in the rituals demonstrated his openness towards the Japanese culture.


  1. Expressing genuine interest to learn about the Japanese system

Modi expressed interest in knowing about the Japanese education system and visited an elementary school in Japan.

Expressing his appreciation for the Japanese principles of management and their model for skill development, India’s PM said that he had already initiated moves to introduce the Japanese principles of management in the Prime Miniser’s Office. He sought Japan’s help for skill development in India to prepare the Indian workforce to match the global workforce in terms of quality, discipline and the ability to make zero-defect products.


  1. Helping the Japanese to know about Indian culture and his working style

Acting as the cultural ambassador, PM Modi presented Bhagwad Gita, the Indian epic that embodies the essence of life, philosophy and spiritual wisdom to the Japanese PM. He gifted a copy of the book in Sanskrit as well as its translated version in Japanese.

Modi introduced the school children in Japan to Indian mythology by narrating the story of Lord Krishna to them.

While informing the Japanese PM of the initiatives taken by his government during the first 100 days in office, he stated that his government was interested in easing the foreign direct investment rules.


  1. Setting an Elevated Purpose

Modi asked the business fraternity of Japan and India to partner not just for bilateral gains, but act as a force for development of Asia and the world, thus setting an elevated purpose beyond immediate commercial gains.


All these actions, clearly demonstrate India’s willingness to establish deep rooted ties at a cultural level.

Cultural barriers, when reduced, make way for commerce.  As people get to know each other at a cultural level, they understand their behavior and needs better, which sets ground for collaboration and innovation, thus enabling the co-creation of technology or products to cater to those needs.

The meticulously planned trip is aptly designed to set the right cultural context for enhancing the business dealings between the two countries.


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