The Japanese do not forget old friends easily. Tokyo has honoured former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with its highest award at a time when he is all but forgotten in India. He has been conferred with the Grand Cordon of the Order of Paulownia Flowers. He is the first Indian to get the award.

The honour will be read in many ways, but what strikes me is the message it sends out. It says that the India-Japan relationship has a long history and will be important for years to come. In strengthening this relationship Singh has played a key role – as an economic advisor, while holding other offices in the government, and as prime minister.

This is not the first Japanese award Singh has received. In 1997 he was given the Nikkei Asia Prize, an award instituted by Japan’s leading economic newspaper the Nikkei.

Gave bilateral ties new dimensions

Only the Japanese would have honours named after flowers. The tree, scientifically proven to be native to North America, is named after a Dutch queen.

Called kiri in Japanese, the tree was traditionally planted at the birth of a daughter so that the wood could be used for her trousseau when she was married. Today, it is on the emblem of the prime minister’s office. The emblem of the Japanese imperial house is the chrysanthemum.

Singh has had a long interest in Japan. During his tenure, the bilateral relationship acquired a political and strategic dimension that was peripheral for most of the post-war period.

It is worth recalling that in the aftermath of Indian independence, when Japan was still a defeated nation under US-led occupation, it was India that presciently argued that Japan must be made part of the newly emerging Asia or Asia would split.

India invited Japan to participate in the Asian relations conference in March-April 1947, months before its Independence. It invited Japan to the first Asian Games in New Delhi in March 1951, though Japan had been excluded from the Olympic Games in London in 1948.

India refused reparation payments for wartime damage from Japan, but more importantly it argued that the US should not sign a military alliance with Japan while it was still under its occupation. The US went on to make Japan a military ally and then signed the San Francisco peace treaty that ended Japan’s occupation. This was a major step in cutting off Japan from the newly emerging Asia.

Cold War thaw

Pushed apart during the divisive Cold War period, India and Japan came closer when the fall of the Soviet Union created space for new interactions. As India loosened its economic controls, Japan, then still a "miracle" economy, was seen as the source of much needed capital and technology.

Singh’s reforms as finance minister in 1991 were, in part, enabled because Japan helped the country in tiding over the balance of payments crisis. The economy’s opening led to renewed interest from Japan. Economic ties developed but the political side of the ties took longer to take shape.

In August 2000, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited India and signed a pact with then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for a Global Partnership for the 21st Century. Since then the relationship between the two countries has grown steadily.

Despite the debates and differing visions, the two governments have seen a convergence of political, economic and strategic interests, giving greater depth to their relationship.

Deviating from safe choices

In honouring the former prime minister, the Japanese have displayed an unexpected side to their perceived conformism. It is not a "safe" choice. The foreigners who have received this award earlier include General Douglas MacArthur, who was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces that occupied Japan after the war and carried out major reforms to demilitarise and democratise the country, as well as Lord Mountbatten.

The Japanese conservatives, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have always held Justice Radha Binod Pal in high honour as he gave a dissenting judgement in the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, a judgement they see as clearing them of wrongdoing. But giving him the award posthumously, which it has been to others, would have triggered a contentious debate.

This time 57 foreigners have been honoured, together with some 4,000 Japanese, in the imperial award ceremony. Among the foreigners are the US scholar and Assistant Secretary Jospeh Nye, best known for his theorising of "soft power".

In recognising Singh’s contribution, the award underlines the importance of the India-Japan relationship at a time when the region is undergoing a great transformation.

Brij Tankha is a professor of modern Japanese history, retired from the University of Delhi.