Swami Vivekananda & Japan

Swami Vivekananda & Japan

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Many monsoons’ ago, a schoolteacher at Hyderabad had narrated to us an anecdote from the life of Swami Vivekananda. The monk was traveling around India with a friend from Japan, who remarked that the country seemed to be a very rich indeed. After a while, when the visitor kept on repeating the same thing, Vivekananda asked him, “Why do you keep reiterating the same thing, even after seeing for yourself the destitution and poverty all around??”. The visitor replied, “Yes, but I also see so many young men sitting around idling their time away…you wouldn’t see that in a poor country, would you?”

I don’t know if the story was concocted to make a point, but it is a fact that Vivekananda had friends from Japan, and it is also well documented that he had pretty strong things to say about India, after his visit to Japan in 1893.

Vivekananda travelled to Japan on his way to the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago. He reached the port city of Nagasaki in mid-1893, and boarded a steamer to Kobe. From here to took the land route to Yokohama, visiting along the way, the three big cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. He called the Japanese “one of the cleanest people on earth”, and was impressed not only by neatness of their streets and dwellings but also by their movements, attitudes and gestures, all of which he found to be “picturesque”.

The visit happened at a time when the Japanese themselves would not take “picturesque” as a compliment. A band of youngsters – the Meiji reformers – had just completed the first phase of a major transformation of everything in Japan. Anything that was traditional – religion, social structure, education, government – was being considered decadent, and was being replaced with Western models.

This was also a period of rapid military build-up in Japan – a prelude to the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-JapaneseWar (1904). These preparations did not escape the attention of Vivekananda, who wrote – “The Japanese seem now to have fully awakened themselves to the necessity of the present times. They have now a thoroughly organized army equipped with guns which one of their own officers has invented and which is said to be second to none. Then, they are continually increasing their navy”. About the industrial progress he observed, “The match factories are simply a sight to see, and they are bent upon making everything they want in their own country.”.

Contrasting the rapid progress of Japan with the situation back in India, he urged his countrymen – the “offspring of centuries of superstition and tyranny” – to come out of their narrow holes and have a look abroad – 

“Only I want that numbers of our young men should pay a visit to Japan and China every year. Especially to the Japanese, India is still the dreamland of everything high and good. And you, what are you? … talking twaddle all your lives, vain talkers, what are you? Come, see these people, and then go and hide your faces in shame. A race of dotards, you lose your caste if you come out! Sitting down these hundreds of years with an ever-increasing load of crystallized superstition on your heads, for hundreds of years spending all your energy upon discussing the touchableness of untouchableness of this food or that, with all humanity crushed out of you by the continuous social tyranny of ages – what are you? And what are you doing now? … promenading the sea-shores with books in your hands – repeating undigested stray bits of European brainwork, and the whole soul bent upon getting a thirty rupee clerkship, or at best becoming a lawyer – the height of young India’s ambition – and every student with a whole brood of hungry children cackling at his heels and asking for bread!Is there not water enough in the sea to drown you, books, gowns, university diplomas, and all?”

Yet, on his return to India in February 1897, when he was asked by a correspondent from The Hindu, “Is it your wish that India should become like Japan?”, Vivekananda’s response was unequivocal – “Decidedly not”, he said, “India should continue to be what she is. How could India ever become like Japan, or any nation for the matter of that? In each nation, as in music, there is a main note, a central theme, upon which all others turn. Each nation has a theme: everything else is secondary. India’s theme is religion. Social reform and everything else are secondary. Therefore India cannot be like Japan. It is said that when ‘the heart breaks’, then the flow of thought comes. India’s heart must break, and the flow of spirituality will come out. India is India. We are not like the Japanese, we are Hindus. India’s very atmosphere is soothing. I have been working incessantly here, and amidst this work I am getting rest. It is only from spiritual work that we can get rest in India. If your work is material here, you die of — diabetes!”

More than a hundred years later, the question is perhaps still open – when will India`s heart break? 

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